Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Being a good academic citizen


A lot of ink has been spilt about the pro’s and con’s of academic peer review. I am not going to add to the existing literature on this matter in this blogpost. Suffice it to say that I subscribe to the view that anonymous peer review is still the least deficient of the available mechanisms to determine the quality of a given article submission. As an editor of two international journals I am painfully aware of the fact that occasionally the quality of peer review is not as good as it should be. Usually enraged or not so enraged emails from authors give us editors an indication that one or another of the reviewers we invited to review a particular manuscript might not have been as diligent as would have been desirable.  In some of those cases we tend to embark on a second round of reviews. Either way, we depend on volunteers, also commonly known as good academic citizens, to review articles submitted to the journal. Our Editorial Board members have graciously agreed to review a minimum of four submitted articles for us in any given year, many review quite a few more submissions.

Without dependable reviewers Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics could not function and deliver high-quality outputs. One problem we encounter frequently is that it often is very difficult to find reviewers for submitted manuscripts. We know from conversation with fellow editors at other bioethics and medical ethics journals that we are not alone in this. The ‘very difficult’ refers to a number of different problems, the accumulated effects of which have a deleterious effect on our operations. For starters, too many academics are very happy to submit their manuscripts for review but they think little of returning the professional courtesy of their reviewers by responding positively to invitations to review manuscripts for the journal. As a result, some of those good academic citizens, who review diligently for us, get arguably overburdened with review requests, while those who prefer not to review content get a free ride. I wonder whether the Golden Rule might actually be more frequently written about by academic ethicists than it is actually followed by us. It is notable that junior academics tend to be more generous with their time while many (but by no means all) of the more established scholars are among the more frequent non-responders. The former also tend to provide longer, more in-depth and more constructive reviews. This, of course, is very much appreciated by authors keen to improve their papers prior to submitting their final draft for publication.

Other problems that typically delay – sometimes very significantly – decisions on submitted manuscripts have to do with invited reviewers not responding to our invitations, lagging significantly behind agreed-upon deadlines for the delivery of the reviews, not delivering promised reviews at all, but also producing reviews so devoid of critical substance that they are useless for all intent and purposes.

Part of the problem is undoubtedly that many academic institutions encourage free-riders by not giving serious credits for undertaking per reviews for academic journals, funding agencies and the like. If annual performance reviews, or tenure reviews do not include credits for such work it is understandable why academics turn down such work. This is very unfortunate indeed.  As academics we should flag this issue within our institutions with a view toward establishing formal institutional recognition of demonstrable, quantifiable services to the academic community. 

Monday, December 03, 2012

Margaret Somerville in secular garb - in the Catholic Register

Good fun, Margaret Somerville, a McGill law professor is interviewed in the Catholic Register. The main objective of the article is to figure out her 'secular stance' on assisted dying. For good measure, and presumably to ascribe expertise to her in matters bioethics, the Catholic Register describes her as a bioethics professor, yet McGill only notes her law school and her medical school professorial appointments. I was not able to find any evidence of her holding currently a formal appointment as a bioethics professor at that university. 

Evidence has never been MsSomerville's strongest point. So, without any evidence to back up her claims she declares on the Catholic website, 'One of the things that's wrong with respect to Justice (Lynn) Smith's judgment (in Carter v. Attorney General of B.C.) is that she purports to review the use of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide in the jurisdictions that have legalized it. She said there is no problem, there is no slippery slope. Well, that's simply not right factually.

It turns out, in our Report on end of life decision-making in Canada we reviewed the empirical evidence on the slippery slope matter and concluded that there is no evidence that assisted dying leads us down slippery slopes to unwanted killings. Of course, we reviewed evidence, Ms Somerville is in full preaching mode. 

Ms Somerville also declares that 'The biggest group who are against euthanasia are doctors, and certainly by far not all of them are Church people.' Things are more complicated. For instance, a survey of medical specialists in Quebec reported a strong majority of medical specialists in that province coming out in favour of decriminalizing assisted dying. 

Ms Somerville is also up to her old magic tricks when framing the issue at hand: 'The pro-euthanasia people are very keen on saying there's a societal consensus, that everyone wants this. Well yes, but you've got to make sure those surveys are properly done. If you say to somebody that someone is in terrible pain and they want euthanasia, should they be able to have it? You've got to choose between saying yes to euthanasia and saying no to pain and suffering relief. What you have to do is ask people, does someone have absolute rights to all possible pain management? And the answer is yes, absolutely.' [emphasis added]

This is a true Somerville classic. The choice is, of course, not between either pain relief or euthanasia. You want good palliative care and access to assisted dying for those who do not consider their lives worth living. It's not either euthanasia or palliative care. 

She is also against equal marriage rights, because 'of its impact on kids' rights.' It goes without saying that there is no evidence that kids brought up in same sex families are in any way worse off than those who are brought up in heterosexual families, or that their 'rights' are violated in any appreciable sense. But hey, Ms Somerville is concerned. Right. How about reading up on the evidence?  I understood this to be an important concept in law, but I might be mistaken. She also notes, incredibly, that as far as she knows, homosexuality is natural 'for some people'. You just got to love her! - It is not terribly surprising, perhaps, that Ms Somerville's views, these days, are not even accepted as expert advice by the courts. As far as I can tell (her McGill website, her Wikipedia entry), this 'bioethics professor' has no formal qualifications in either ethics or bioethics.