Sunday, 19 August 2012

Lots to do at the American Journal of Bioethics

As readers of this blog know, I have informed about and commented quite a bit on various controversies and debates surrounding the American Journal of Bioethics – when it comes to standard ways of ranking academic journals, the by far most influential of those in the field of bioethics and medical ethics, as well as celebrated for its pioneer editorial design with main "target articles" and rapid responses, plus a parallel publication online at the, a research, news and comment portal for bioethics. Notwithstanding these qualities, the recent events I have been reporting about have undoubtedly scarred AJOB as an institution and left the current management with a challenging task of restoring lost trust. A short reminder:

1. A high profile resignation from the editorial board by Hilde Lindemann due to doubts about the soundness of the journal's editorial and managerial policies (here, here, here).

2. An impossible conflict of interest situation within the editorial management of AJOB created when former editor in chief Glenn McGee resigned to take up a post as full-time consultant for the private stem cell banking company, CellTex, while his wife (a distinguished bioethicist ijn her own right, but under default legislation, of course, sharing the financial ties of her husband), Summer Johnson McGee took over the AJOB rudder (together with David Magnus). It didn't help the case that Glenn McGee's resignation process and move to CellTex was far from ideally managed (creating lots of completely unnecessary questions) or that the Cell Tex operation itself is highly questioned among bioethics researchers. My reports and comments are here, here, here, here, here, here. The affair resolved itself when Glenn McGee announced his resignation from the CellTex job (thereby severing the vested conflict of interest ties affecting Summer Johnson McGee), but had at that point already effected two heavy resignations from the editorial board by John Lantos (who provided a strongly worded explanation) and Udo Schüklenk, himself editor in chief of the journal Bioethics (the latter however, still listed as a board member at the AJOB website).

This last affair had a bit of a semi-relevant aftermath, when CellTex, the stem cell company to which Glenn McGgee had been signed on to provide ethics consultancy threatened University of Minnesota bioethicist Leigh Turner (as well as his university) with lawsuits, when he wrote a letter to the FDA, urging them to investigate CellTex. Almost simultaneously, Glenn McGee did a very similar thing to Carl Elliott, a bioethics professor at the same university as Turner, for his published criticism of McGee's involvement with CellTex, leading to a retraction by the publisher Slate. See here, and here. None of those events, of course, did any good for the stained reputation of AJOB and one would have wished the journal some peace and quiet to be able to set the ship back on a straight course. However, it does not seem to end there.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that a leading researcher of the Center for Practical Bioethics, Myra Christopher was to be included in a US Senate probe into suspected heavy duty corruption due to the sponsoring from pharmacological companies in the area of pain medication and care. Now, until not very long time ago, both the McGee's were attached to CPB and Christopher herself is a member of the AJOB editorial board. So far pretty circumstantial and not really a link. However, a very recent revelation is that AJOB, when publishing an article with Christopher as co-author, neglected to publish a meaty description of her conflicts of interests due to the pharma sponsorship of CPB, plus missed (possibly due to omissions by Christopher to follow the proscribed COI disclosure procedure) other similar COI's of her co-authors. More details are at William Heisel's Reporting on Health blog; here and here. In any case the link between the troubles at AJOB and the serious allegations against CPB and Christopher is through this development clearly more than circumstantial. AJOB has allowed the possibly corrupt situation at CPB to enter into its midst, and it did so when its editor in chief and one other editor was academically based at CPB, so that the journal was effectively run from there, and even more so its parallel online extension

Now, queried by Reporting on Health, David Magnus, one of the new editors in chief of AJOB described how steps are now taken to beef up the COI disclosure procedures of the journal. Together with the resolving of the conflict of interest situation, this bodes well for the journal's future, albeit the uphill that has to be climbed by Magnus and Johnson McGee and their co-workers on the editorial and managerial side of AJOB has not exactly become less steep. Being a fan of AJOB, it makes me happy to detect Magnus' resolve to clear up any remaining irregularities or integrity problems at AJOB, and thus take important steps to restore its reputation.

One of the things that continues to create suspicion and confusion is the relation and connection between AJOB and This, I assume what was explained Hilde Lindemann's doubts with regard to the ownership of AJOB, and the latest post at Reporting on Health displays confusion around where information about AJOB is to be had – at the T&F website of the journal or at It has, through the first of the controversies mentioned above, been made very clear that AJOB is owned and published by Taylor & Francis, which in turn are not involved in the ownership or operation of But, of course, there is a business deal of some sort between T&F and, lest the latter would not be able to offer its members automatic access to all AJOB material or so vigorously promote AJOB (no doubt contributing to its popularity and impact). When I checked before, when controversy no. 2 above was going on, none of these things were made very clear at the website. However, the information given has now clearly improved and the ownership of as well as its business link to AJOB is now described in the "about" section, thus: is owned and operated by Bioethics Internet Group. Bioethics Internet Group (BIG) is wholly owned by Summer Johnson McGee, Ph.D. Funding for is provided by paid banner advertisements appearing on the website and a stipend from Taylor and Francis, Inc.
To me, this explains a lot why it "had" to be Summer Johnson McGee who took over the rudder when Glenn McGee resigned to take up the CellTex job. Although separate financial and organisational entities, only one of which with financial ties to the McGee's, and AJOB are very much dependent on each other. Or AJOB is at least dependent on to the extent that the latter does contribute to the success of the journal. Or perhaps the double involvement in and AJOB helps to fund the no doubt unusually complicated editorial operation of the journal's ambitious design? In any case, it would seem very probable that stands and falls as a business with the link to AJOB. So far, perhaps not much of a problem for AJOB from an integrity perspective. But it may need to be discussed to what extent it may be a problem that the editor in chief of AJOB has a direct financial interest in what is being published by AJOB (since that will affect the traffic of and, through that, advertisement revenue of BIG, owned by Johnson McGee).

In any case, another matter for Magnus, Johnson McGee and the editorial board – as well as responsible officers at Taylor & Francis, of course – to ponder as they all continue their efforts to restore AJOB to its former glory.

Friday, 17 August 2012

The Most Frightened Man in the World

You can always tell when those tyrants become pussycats, can't you?

Any other part of the week possibly rivaled by his buddy Assad, but this very day of the Pussy Riot ruling (here, here, here, here, here, here, here) there can be no other winner of the Yellow, chicken-hearted pussy of the year award:

Those real kitty-cats, however, step up the game and deal out one more claw:



Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Rawlsian Ageism at Yale: A Highly Ironic Call for Papers

Just a very short note on this little thing that created some discussion on Twitter today, after a tweet by Liam Shields, a young (yes, that is relevant, you'll see!) UK political philosopher, currently at the University of Manchester. It's a call for papers to a conference at no less a university than Yale, called John Rawls: Past, Present, Future, to be held the last day of November this fall. It all looks like a great event for anyone into political philosophy and theory, and it's especially nice since quite obviously, the organizers have wanted to avoid the usual parade of post-retirement academic giants that usually fill the programs of spectacles like these, despite having had very little new to say the last 30 years or so.

The call specifically states that no less than six papers, given ample amount of time for presentation, by younger contributors will be selected for the program. Again, very nice had it only been the "academic age" that was the target. However, whether by oversight, lack of insight or intention, this is not the case. The call runs:

We will select the most interesting three papers authored by students or scholars below 28 as well as the three most interesting papers from students or scholars between 28 and 37.
Yes, the author of the call has focused on biological age, when specifying what is a young contributor. Thus leaving out this nice opportunity for academically young students/scholars, who happen to be older than 37. One of the commentators on twitter actually belongs to that category. Moreover, it makes it technically possible (albeit not very likely) that in this category will fall some (to me unknown) political philosophy and theory prodigy, who already at the splendid age of 27 or 37 is a chaired professor and academically looks more like the post-retirement people I mentioned earlier.

Now, so far, this may be written off as just a silly mistake. However, the fact that the conference is on John Rawls in particular makes for a more subtle and sophisticated turn, theoretically as well as how to assess the mistake of the organizers. Rawls, as you may know, is most famous for his phenomenally influential book, A Theory of Justice, from 1971. The theoretical core of the complex body of thought presented there is a renewed variant of the formula of social contract theory, made into what philosophers, when I had my basic training, used to call an ideal observer theory of justification. What Rawls does, in short, is to defend a set principles for a just society on the basis of asking himself what principles a set of (highly hypothetical, naturally) self-interested, perfectly rational parties would accept, were they forced to make a choice behind what Rawls famously called a veil of ignorance. That is, they would know nothing about their own (or anyone else's) particular place or fate in a society resulting from application of the principles they select, but otherwise (being perfectly rational) know everything about that society in general terms. In this way, Rawls reasoned, the chosen principles would be immune from criticism based on claims of unjustified or unfair bias or discrimination. Typical examples of what the choosing parties would not know is their social standing, their race, their life-style preferences, their sex or gender and, indeed, their age.

So, ironically, it would seem that the call for papers not only misses the apparent target that the organizers presumably had in mind. It would, as it were, in fact not pass the very test that Rawls himself is famous for having brought forward as the source of justification for principles of distributing social goods. We can all make mistakes, but it boggles the mind how the organizers – all very established names in the field – would bring that double jeopardy on themselves.

Friday, 10 August 2012

More on How to Navigate in the Jungle of Online Open Access Academic Publishing

This post is a follow-up to one of the more popular posts of mine this year: How to Avoid Shaming Yourself and Your Field in the Academic Online Open Access Publishing Jungle. It has attracted a lot of readers and encouraging comments, here as well as via email, twitter and other routes. One of the early comments came from Jeffrey Beall, author of the list which made up the bulk of my own post, which was in turn cross-posted from Jeff's blog Metadata. What Jeff contacted me about was that he had just started a new blog focusing specifically on monitoring dodgy OA publishers, journals and related operations, such as academic editing, proof-reading, manuscript compilation and indexing services. My intention was to post this info, but then work stuff came in between, I momentarily forgot about it, and then contracted the illness which I am now almost recovered from.

So, with some shame on me, here is at last what looks to me as an outstanding source for accomplishing that which was the purpose of my first post: to help academics, PhD candidates, supervisors, etc. to navigate in the virtual jungle of the online OA academic publishing landscape, so as to avoid shaming oneself or one's academic institution, undermining one's forthcoming academic career, and so on. Jeff is frequently making fresh posts, and documents the result in continuously updated alphabetic lists. 

The blog's name?

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

USA Willingness to Abandon 2°C Target in Climate Talks Opens for Negative Spirals and Moral Criticism

Just the other day, the US government went public with an official willingness to abandon the henceforth solidly agreed 2°C target in global climate policy talks. It did so rather slippery, through a public address by the Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern, at Dartmouth College. Not a public declaration by the President, or at least a minister. But nevertheless a clear signal, since it is since some time posted at the US Dept. of State's webpage

The declaration of "flexibility" with regard to the 2°C target has been met with criticism. But I wonder why the critics all act so surprised. This, I would claim, is an expected outcome of the way that the COP climate policy summits have been going over the last few years. However, I also think that the "flexibility" is far more deadly than what is implied by the criticism and for this, I have support from some of my own latest research!

Some of you may have noted my yearly comments on the global climate policy talks, the so-called COP, from no. 15, 16 and 17. Since last time in Durban, it was agreed that the COP summit will not meet again until 2015, and since that agreement was a result of the continued refusal of a few powerful players (the US and China in particular) to yield on their position to have others pay for the inescapable burdens of managing the climate change that is already unavoidable and preventing or, at least, limiting further such change by halting the continuing rise of the global mean temperature to one of 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels. In my last comment, I elaborated on why the 2°C target is such an important cornerstone of the COP talks:

...the 2° target, it must be understood, is not in any way magical or set in stone. In fact, some claims it to be a much too allowing goal. Moreover, the target is rather a range than an exact temperature, since the climate models necessarily embody rather drastic uncertainties. But the 2°C is of importance for two reasons. First, it is one of the very few substantial things about climate policy that the global community has been able to agree on. Second, it approximates the limit of our empirical knowledge from the past and, thus, our basis for prediction, preparation and adaption in face of the various changes that increases of the global mean temperature bring. A bit simplified, beyond 2°C, what we have is basically mathematics and fantasy – something that is amply illustrated by the predictive models in climate change research. Our ability to prepare for whatever will be coming – and thus to be capable of reversing the process without considerable higher cost to human life and well-being – becomes drastically weakened.
Already in Durban, there was a clear tendency that some parties wanted, nevertheless, to abandon the 2°C target, and I warned that the yielding of, especially European countries to the pressures from USA, China and a few other parties with high short-term stakes, to postpone further yearly talks (where this focus on short-term self-interests of these countries were being painfully exposed), lest they would abandon the talks altogether, would further such an end result, since:

...we may expect no, repeat no, preparation on the political home-fronts of these countries for a climate deal in 2015 which implies making actual concessions and taking on actual commitments. This, I claim, is the main result of the strategy of the EU and the rest of the world in Durban.
 Why is this so? Because in the game of Chicken played by the US, China and their unholy group of allies (for the analysis showing that this is what they are doing, see my first COP post)...

...Europe and the rest of the Kyoto-protocol signing countries are allowing themselves to become what game theorists know as money pumps – someone who is applying a strategy that makes one systematically vulnerable to making deals that sum up to a loosing position, while one's counterpart is systematically winning, although each singular deal may look like a winner. Giving in to blackmail (which is, effectively, what Europe is doing in the climate policy negotiation game) is a prime example.
If not clear before, the declared "flexibility" on the 2°C target makes this as evident as one may wish. For the 2°C target is, as a matter of fact even more important than what has been set out above. For what the agreement on the 2°C target stands for is the idea that a climate policy agreement is supposed to limit further rises of the global temperature and, hence, limit the extent and costs (in monetary as well as human and environmental terms) of climate change, by limiting CO2 and other green house gas emissions. It is the global acceptance of that ultimate goal which has then created the necessity of negotiating of how to distribute the, no doubt, substantial costs of reaching it. It is, thus, within this frame that the above mentioned game of Chicken has been played, with the outcome that none of the institutional frameworks created at the COP meetings and mentioned by Todd Stern will have any substantial impact on climate change. Therefore, what Stern argues in his Dartmouth address is that the difficulties of reaching an agreement in such a context means that keeping to the 2°C target will mean that one forfeits one's chance of substantial global political agreement:

For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible.
However, while I agree with Stern that the situation that has ensued in global climate policy negotiations is grave, the cure he proposes to my mind threatens to make the patient much more ill than if, simply, Europe and other states pressing for substantial concessions stood up a little bit better. And, as an aside, perhaps this is what Stern senses too, thus continuing the Chicken-playing by saying the things he does, hoping that the other side will thereby look at a hard line for insisting on such concessions as a hopeless strategy.But, nevertheless, if Stern would have his way, what would that imply? Would we then see a chance

In my recent book on the ethical basis of the precautionary principle, The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk (Springer, 2011), I discuss the implications of the theory of the ethics of risk that I develop and defend on the example of climate change policy (chapter 6, section 6.2.1). A primary result of that analysis that is no way dependent on my own particular theory is that there is an intimate interplay between ethically analysing the issues of:

(1) how much of risk and damage due to climate change that may be accepted in view of the costs of preventing or reducing them and available options, and

(2) how the costs of reducing or preventing risk and damage due to climate change should be distributed between concerned parties.

This since, first, the answer to (1) will partly depend on what latitude of acceptable options that is available with regard to (2). The more constrained we are with regard to how the costs of action (and inaction) may be distributed, the less the room for arguing in favor of a lower acceptance level for climate change related risk and damage. This since there will be less practical ways of pulling an actual implementation of such a lower level off without having to distribute costs in unacceptable ways. Second, how (1) is set will dictate, under most minimally reasonable ideas of how (unavoidable) costs and harm should be distributed between parties, what solutions of (2) that become available. When more is at stake, issues about distribution becom more pressing and increasingly minor details (especially regarding already burdened, especially unfavored or otherwise especially vulnerable parties) will become more relevant.

This mutual dependence is mirrored by what seems like a very plausible social scientific assumption with regard to how events may in fact be expected to unfold: The lower the actual acceptance level for climate change related risk and damage is set, the more difficult it will be to reach actual consensus on how to distribute the costs of implementing such a level, and the farther away from consensus with regard to (2) that concerned parties perceive themselves to be, the less likely that they will agree on a lower level with regard to (1). The first is what has already been demonstrated by the COP failures. The second dependence, however, although I predicted it in my book, has so far not been demonstrated. That is, up to Todd Stern's announcement of the new "flexible" US view of the 2°C target. For this is what Stern's (and the USA's) new stand boils down to: allowing more of risk and damage due to climate change in order to have a less difficult situation agreeing to a distribution of the costs of the steps taken to limit the risks and damage of climate change. In straight terms: those that will be harmed by climate change will be harmed more and some that would not have been harmed otherwise will be now be harmed, since the US decides to accept that rather than open its massive purse just a tiny bit more.

In my book, I argue that reasoning in patterns like Stern here does is both morally and rationally indefensible (quite apart from its role in extending the blackmail operation of the Chicken playing henceforth forming the US main strategy), since it tends to create a self-fulfilling prophecy situation. If the US says that the formerly agreed upper limit on green house gas emissions (in terms of a limit to the rise of the mean global temperature) is open for revision upwards, parties will be less prepared to accept that limit (since they can see the opportunity of having to carry less costs for limiting emissions thereby created), and thus the case for the Stern stance is strengthened, since the 2°C target does not (due to his having made the initial statement) enjoy such a strong support after all. We can now see how this process may continue according to a so far unknown logic of development, where eventually the difficulties of agreeing on the distribution of costs will be so easy to overcome so that no significasnt party see any need for pressing for a further upward adjustment of the global emission or mean temperature limit. Will that be 4, a 5, a 6 or perhaps a 7°C limit? We don't know. All we know is that people will reap the harvest in the next few hundred years in terms of much more climate change related damage and and exponentially worse risks.

All of this is exactly why responsible politicians once upon a time made the 2°C agreement – so that something could be kept out of the negotiations, knowing what would otherwise ensue, thus creating a basis for a result that would actually save people from harm to a significant extent. But to do that, global politics needs to finally confront the distribution issue seriously, rather than dancing around it in a ritual of looking the other way that has been the rule of the COP summits. This is what the Stern address teaches us. It needs to disprove Stern's claim that doing that within the framework of a morally responsible resolve to limit the damage of climate change is not within "the art of the possible". In my book, I sketch one contribution to such an endeavor in the form of a way of solving the distribution issue (answering question (2) above) without invoking any of those traditional disagreements over what is just and fair that are currently poisoning and paralyzing global climate policy talks with useless ideology. It is possible, I argue, to infer a solution to the question of how to distribute the costs just by having each party work out what would be the most morally responsible decision for them to make in terms of the risks and chances, harms and benefits and available options. The total result of those solutions of each party will provide a distribution where no one will have a good reason to complain, while at the same time the resulting agreement may actually do some substantial good in terms of prevention and reduction of climate change related damage and risk.