Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Is bioethics a 'rich country' affair?

The BMC Medical Ethics site has recently published an interesting article by a group of Belgian researchers entitled 'How international is bioethics? A quantitative retrospective study.' The group sought to determine the nationalities of those who wrote for nine bioethics journals that profile themselves as 'international' between 1990 and 2003. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that bioethics authors from the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia are overrepresented, claiming between them authorship of roughly 80% of all bioethics articles published by those journals. Only 3.4% of articles published by those nine journals over that period were penned by bioethicists from developing countries. Of course, bioethics is not alone as far as this is concerned. Underrepresentation of the work of developing world health researchers in peer-reviewed medical journals has been a matter of discussion for years.

In bioethics, the problem is not (just) underrepresentation of developing world authors. It is also an overrepresentation of developed world topics in bioethics. Just as 90% of the world's health research resources are devoted to the study of the diseases afflicting 10% of the world's population, a large percentage of bioethics discourse may be devoted to the discussion of the ethical implications of medical technologies that only a small fraction of the world's population can even comprend, much less access. (This month's editor's choice at the Journal of Medical Ethics is about cyborgs and moral identity, by the way.) An another quantitative study should be designed that focuses not on who does the talking, but what the talk is mostly about, and what the talk says about the current state of bioethics and the world.