You want to publish? Let’s hear all your dirty secrets

By Charles Foster

Most scientific journals require contributors to declare any conflict of interest.

But what about ethicists? We are much more ambitious and presumptuous in our aims than most scientists. We purport to tell our readers not which drug will reduce their blood cholesterol, or which type of plate is best for their radial fracture, but how best to live: how to make right decisions about things that matter far more than cholesterol; how to be the right sort of people. If we write good papers, amounting to more than newspaper opinion pieces, the papers support their conclusions with supposedly objective reasoning. We try to look scientific. And yet, try as we might, we can’t escape from our own histories and tendencies. If an ethicist has been sexually abused as a boy by a paedophilic priest, or forced to watch US evangelical TV, he’ll never be able to think that religion is anything but evil or ridiculous, and his articles will argue, with apparent but wholly fake objectivity, towards that conclusion. If the Jesuits got him before the age of 7, and etched the catechism into his subconscious rather than buggering him, the man they made out of the boy will be theirs for ever, in the Journal of Medical Ethics just as devoutly as in the confessional. And yet there’ll be not a whisper of a warning next to their papers. Those influences are likely to be far more determinative of the views expressed than any financial conflict of interest in a drug trial ever was. Everything about an ethicist’s life raises a potential conflict of interest.

Of course, once you’ve been round the ethics world for a while, you put those warnings in yourself. ‘That’s a paper from someone who was bullied in the playground: he’s always hysterically over defensive and aggressive in his academic work’; or ‘She uncritically accepts the Lorena Bobbitt school of feminist ethics, and we all know why, and sympathise.’ But it takes a while to be able to do this, and there are always lots of unknown contributors whose pretence of Olympian detachment might be hard to penetrate.

So what’s to be done? Journals must demand a formal declaration of interest whenever anyone submits an ethics paper. Of course these declarations cannot be written by the contributors themselves. We need something akin to the anonymous 360 degree appraisal to which medical practitioners are miserably subjected – views from a representative selection of people who’ve had relevant contact with the contributor (and in this context everything is relevant –particularly feedback from spurned lovers, dismissed cleaners, and members of the darts team). Those views would be expertly, and ideally amusingly, compiled into a summary which would appear beside the paper on publication. It would provide stimulating work for thousands, and should make ethics journals a lot more readable, as well as a lot more academically reliable.

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12 Responses to You want to publish? Let’s hear all your dirty secrets

  • David Shipley says:

    Wonderful. It would suddenly go very very quiet, and all the ethicists would be looking for something else to do. As Shakespeare had Hamlet say:
    "I am myself indifferent honest;
    but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
    were better my mother had not borne me"

  • Mmm . . . I'd be interested n seeing a few of those honest declarations. I'm thinking along slightly different lines that Charles though – just a couple might be: (1) the REF is coming so I had to try and publish in the highest ranking journal possible; and related to this (2) its publish or perish so I have churned out a few half-baked ideas in order to publish.

    Cynic . . . moi? :)

  • Charles Foster says:

    David,
    Thank you: I'm sure you're right. It would be the end of philosophical publishing. I could certainly never publish anything again.
    C

  • Charles Foster says:

    Muireann,
    Indeed: we, of course, would never do such things, but there are some terrible people out there.
    Charles

  • Simon Rippon says:

    A brilliant solution! Of course the appraisers themselves might have all sorts of biases and conflicts of interest, so for objectivity's sake we'd need some appraiser-appraisers as well…

  • Charles Foster says:

    Simon,
    You're right. And so on ad infinitum.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Lovely reading…and now I'm wondering how far it applies also to those of us who merely like commenting on ethics blogs. Do we have conflicts of interest too? I hope so, otherwise I'll feel left out. :)

  • Charles Foster says:

    Peter,
    Don't worry, I'm sure you do. But I'm sure that you triumph over them.
    Charles

  • Peter Wicks says:

    Well put :)

  • Dennis Tuchler says:

    The less we know about the author, the better. Ignorance of the author's life and biases eliminates arguments ad hominem and keeps the focus on the argument.

    Ethicians, after all, aren't sitting as judges or arbitrators, where personal biases are important.

  • Peter Wicks says:

    I wonder. I think personal biases are important even in ethical discourse. I'm all for taking arguments at face value, but I also think that a bit of contextual (personal) information can be helpful. Knowing where an idea has come from doesn't in itself tell us whether the idea is valuable or not, but it can shed light on what role it is playing in the lives of those who are advocating it, or have done so in the past. I think you can learn a lot from that.

  • Charles Foster says:

    There's an excellent paper by Mikey Dunn and Jonathan Ives on this subject: see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8519.2010.01809.x/abstract

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