Saturday, August 01, 2015

Imperialism and access to bioethics journals

Let's say that bioethics is about understanding and managing conflicts of value related to health and care for health. Call them moral challenges. Let's also say that there is something at stake in these challenges, i.e. that they could be understood and managed for better or for worse, where the 'better' and the 'worse' could impact on human lives. Let's say too that these challenges are universal, i.e. that no society or community is immune from them, even if there are differences between what constitutes 'health', 'care for health', 'values', and how challenges are seen to be understood rightly (or wrongly) and managed well (or badly). In this generic sense, bioethics is universal. Now what if access to bioethics, as a tradition of thought, was largely limited to practitioners in the richer, industrialised countries of the world? It seems unjust that developing countries would be saddled with the moral challenges of health and medicine, without (presumably) also having resources to help make sense of and deal with them in reasonable ways.

This is the central complaint of Chattopadhyay, Myser and De Vries in a recent article in the Journal of Bioethics Inquiry, fetchingly entitled Imperialism in Bioethics: How Politics of Profit Negate Engagement of Developing World Bioethicists and Undermine Global Bioethics. The authors describe how policies by many publishers of bioethics journals making it extremely difficult for aspiring bioethicists in developing countries to engage with the existing (and past) literature. While there are initiatives to improve global access to existing bioethics journals (like HINARI), and there are some open access journals related to bioethics (like BMC Medical Ethics), and you could always write to authors and ask them for copies, these forms of access are inferior to the kind on offer in certain academic institutions in America and Europe. The great powers feast, the others get the crumbs.

The situation of inequality of access to bioethics literature is fairly well-known. What makes Imperialism in Bioethics especially interesting are the ethical implications it tries to draw. For example, the authors state that poor access to bioethics resources make training initiatives aiming at 'capacity building' in developing world countries (like Fogarty and Erasmus programs) illusory. How can capacity be developed if there is no ongoing, sustainable access to bioethics as a tradition of thought? Another implication is that, if there continues to be limited global access to bioethics resources, then bioethics will continue to reflect largely 'Western' assumptions, values, preoccupations and mindset. What will continue to be excluded are alternative forms of health and care for health, and alternative ways of conceiving and dealing with the conflicts related to them. For the authors, it is not just sad that this situation turns bioethics into a Western echo chamber, despite its global pretentions. They call it an intellectual, cultural and moral genocide of non-Western traditions, " ... varieties of sociocultural experience, theorizing, and moral visions of life and medicine that have evolved over eons."

I am not sure that all the implications stick at full strength. Access to bioethics literature certainly matters. But there are substantive obstacles to local bioethics practice in developing countries even if information access problems were to be overcome. One obvious one is that aspiring bioethicists often have nowhere to work in those countries, or at least, no where to work as bioethicists. Local institutions often do not value bioethics enough to fund it, probably because they are too busy tackling all the other fallouts of inequality. Convincing struggling educational institutions that some (or any) of the medical curriculum should be devoted to bioethics can be hair-raising.

As usual, global inequalities lead to uncomfortable ironies. It is painfully ironic that Developing World Bioethics, owned by Wiley-Blackwell -- is not accessable through PubMed Central or HINARI. It is somewhat ironic for the authors to complain about lack of access to a tradition of bioethics they otherwise describe as parochial, decontextualised and hence to some extent useless to the rest of the world. It is really ironic that the article is -- as the authors acknowledge -- published by Springer, whose policies are precisely those that they criticize. And to top it off, Springer seems to have made an exception to their policy for this particular article: everyone (with internet) can read it without paying the usual $39.95.      

NOTE: the article discussed in this blog piece has retracted. For more info, see my blog piece of February 3, 2016. 

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18 Comments:

Blogger udo schuklenk said...

I have replied to this article here: http://ethxblog.blogspot.ca/2015/08/fighting-imaginary-enemies-in-bioethics.html

May I simply note that one of the core empirical claims of this article is false. Pretty much all journals the article lists as unavailable to scholars in the global south via HINARI are actually available via HINARI.

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