And the language of bioethics is… ?

Going to conferences can often be a frustrating experience. Going may be good for refreshing your academic network but there is rarely any deep discussion of the topics on the agenda and many of the presentations are to be blunt rather boring.

I therefore count myself very lucky to have attended 3 interesting conferences within the last month. At all three events the participants actually conferred. There was sustained and constructive discussion and you felt that you had actually learned something by being there.

I won’t bore you with an account of all three conferences so the Workshop arranged by the EUROBESE project in Ghent and the conference on research ethics arranged by COBRA (wonderful acronym for an ethics centre!) at the University of Galway will only get honourable mention.

The reason for focusing on the third conference is that it linked closely with a problem affecting many medical ethics journals including the Journal of Medical Ethics, that is the question of language.

The conference was organised by the German Academy for Ethics in Medicine and its Swiss counterpart and the target population were early career German and Swiss bioethics academics. Its purpose was to enable these young academics to explore issues around publication in bioethics journals especially how you get your first publications in an international journal.

I had been invited to give one of four workshops on publication as a non-native speaker who is the editor of a reasonably prestigious English language bioethics journal and had been sent a list of questions that these young academics wanted answers to. Many of them were standard for such events, e.g. “How does the review process work?”, “Should you contact the editor before submitting?” and so on, but there were also some more specific questions about the importance of language that led me to reflect on the hegemony of English as the language of publication in the international bioethics field.

I looked through the JME’s own publication statistics and was reasonably content that we publish papers from all over the world and from many non-English speaking countries and authors. It was also evident from referee reports and editorial decisions that a paper with a good and interesting argument does not need to be written in perfect English to be accepted. As long as the English is good enough to communicate the argument effectively most referees (and all of the editors of the JME) will not insist on idiomatic and perfectly grammatical writing.

But I became aware of another language related problem that I had never really thought about before, probably because the academic bioethics literature in my own native Danish is fairly limited. In some languages there is a large and theoretically sophisticated bioethics literature and academics working within that language community naturally relate to that literature and reference it in their work. But to most Anglo-American academics and referees these discussions and the literature that is referenced are at best unknown and at worst misinterpreted as bad referencing practice. In any field a set of references become established as the classical references for certain ideas, e.g. in English language bioethics Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” for the discussion of personal identity or Glover/Lockwood/Harris/Singer (take your pick) for the discussion of personhood as the basis for full moral status. Referees look for these references and when they do not find them they may suspect that the author is either ignorant of the literature of has some hidden agenda. But in many cases these inferences are fallacious because there is only a partial overlap between the literature as seen by the author and the literature as seen by the referee. In many cases it is actually the English language reader and referee who is the one who is ignorant of the literature. The author of the paper may well know the English language literature well in addition to his or her native language literature(s).

Is this a problem we can solve? We can clearly discuss it and thereby raise the awareness that there is a problem. But to really solve it we would have to convince our Anglo-American colleagues that there is a worthwhile non-English language bioethics literature and that it is actually possible to think interesting thoughts in other languages than English. That might be rather difficult. Like all hegemonies the hegemony of the English language serves those with power, in this case linguistic power well and they may not be willing to give it up.