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The Academy

Modesty, Conscience, and What it Takes to be a Doctor (with a bit of Comedy)

19 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Two apparently unrelated new and new-ish papers in the JME have caught my eye over the last few days.  One of them is this one: Salilah Saidun’s “Photographing Human Subjects in Biomedical Disciplines: An Islamic Perspective”.  We’ll come to the other in a little while.

There’s a couple of puzzling things about the paper.  One is that I’m not sure what the tone is supposed to be.

It could be a descriptive piece, along the lines of “Look, here’s what Muslims might think about medical photography, and if you’re going to take or use medical photographs, you might want to keep it in mind.”  Of course, it’s by no means certain that all Muslims think alike, or that if (mirabile dictu) they do, it has anything much to do with Islam – but we’ll put that to one side.  Similarly, the fact that some people do think this won’t tell us much about what practical implications there ought to be, beyond keeping it in mind.  It won’t tell us that we ought to adhere to those opinions.  Islamic rules might provide a reason to behave in a certain way; but there might be other reasons to behave in a certain other way – and they might sometimes be more compelling.  I’ll put that to one side, too, though.  As a descriptive paper, it might very well be the sort of thing that’s useful on the wards.

But a descriptive reading won’t explain the passages that appear to have a more normative dimension: more…

In Defence of Live Tweeting

4 Oct, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?, part 2: Should people who live-tweet conferences be thrown out and barred from future conferences?

A story in IHE that concerned a debate (well, I say “debate”, but it was clearly a slow news day…) about the rights and wrongs of live-tweeting prompted Brian Leiter to post this:

[A]nyone who live-tweets a conference should be immediately disinvited from the event, and any future ones.

He elaborated later:

The medium of twitter is not suited to discursive reasoning or extended analysis or argument.  But philosophy presentations contain discursive reasoning and extended analysis and argument.  Therefore a twitter version of a talk will necessarily mutilate it.  Since mutilation of someone’s work has no value, people who attend a conference should have the courtesy not to try to tweet the talks.  If they do not have that courtesy, they should be thrown out.   There may be fields where presentations lend themselves to tweeting; on that issue, I’m agnostic.  But philosophy isn’t one of them.



The first sentence (I’d call it a premise, but that seems to overrate it) of this is possibly true, but not obviously so.  For sure, you can’t get much into a single tweet, but a succession of tweets is capable of generating serious discussion.  There’s not room for nuance – but that might mean simply that you’re forced to cut to the chase.  Thus, though the second sentence is probably true, the third is false.

The claim about courtesy bears a bit more scrutiny.  more…

Jon Cogburn’s Plea to Grad Students (and Others)

24 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

[IB: I’m taking the liberty of copying in its entirety Jon Cogburn’s post on NewAPPS about submitting papers to journals, because it’s worth reading.  He directs it to graduate students – but I think that the same point applies to anyone, especially if they’re new to the field in which they’re writing.  Since a lot of people writing for journals like the JME – especially on topics in clinical ethics – are medics before they’re ethicists, or are coming at ethics from a non-standard direction, I think that the advice is particularly pertinent.]

A Plea to Graduate Students Submitting Papers

Three times this year a bad thing has happened after I’ve encouraged editors to give a paper “revise and resubmit.”

Note that whenever I review a paper and don’t recommend immediate acceptance I work really hard trying to help the writer so that their rewrite will to be up to the quality of the journal.  Even when I counsel “rejection” I still try to give detailed constructive advice about how the paper could be recast, even suggesting places the author should send the rewritten paper.

So three times this year instead of making the changes I recommended the author resubmitted substantially the same paper and argued with some vehemence that they should not have to change their paper in the ways I suggested.  In all three cases the journal editor had given the paper “revise and resubmit,” but then rejected the insufficiently rewritten paper.  In two of these cases I googled the paper title after this was over and found out that the submitters were graduate students.  This is so bad on so many levels.

First, it’s clear to me that some graduate students have no idea that “revise and resubmit” is a very, very good thing, that if you just rewrite the paper up to the reviewer and editor’s standards that at most journals it is almost certain to get accepted.  All three of the people viewed “revise and resubmit” as if it were a kind of rejection, and not a kind of conditional acceptance, as it usually amounts to (de facto if not de jure).  Second, it’s clear to me that some graduate students have no idea what “idiot-proofing” a paper amounts to.  Let me explain.  Suppose that your reviewer is an uncharitable idiot.  Suppose I was when reviewing the papers.  It doesn’t matter!  My comments are still invaluable because you still need to rewrite the thing so that the next uncharitable idiot reviewing it doesn’t make the same mistakes.  Third, it’s clear to me that some graduate students have no idea how high the burden of proof is if you want to convince an editor that the reviewer who has published extensively in the topic in question is making elementary mistakes about the paper.So please communicate this to all and sundry: (1) Revise and resubmit is something to be celebrated, (2) always take into account criticism and suggestions, even if only to idiot-proof for the next reviewer, (3) have some humility.I”m not trying to be censorious here.  If I was I wouldn’t spend so much time giving detailed advice about how to get papers up to publishable standards.  In addition, I know first-hand how stressful this process is for writers and first-hand how stress can produce weird and suboptimal behavior.  I’m trying to help.

I’d very be interested to hear if other reviewers have faced this kind of self-destructive behavior, and if so if there’s anything more we should be doing to stop it.  But if I’m being a jerk here, I trust that someone will point that out too.

Is Bioethics Really a Bully? Really?

11 Sep, 12 | by Iain Brassington

On his blog in The Independent, John Rentoul has a long-running feature called “Questions to which the Answer is No“.  In it, he examines the kind of screaming rhetorical-question headline much beloved of certain middle-market tabloids: “Is this photographic evidence of Nessie?”, “Does coffee cure cancer?”, “Does coffee cause cancer?”, “Does MMR bring down house prices?“* and so on.

Here’s the first in an intermittent parallel series from me: “Questions to which the Answer is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?“.  For the inaugural post, step forward Dan Sokol, the BMJ”s “ethics man”, who asks in his latest column, “Is Bioethics a Bully?”.  The answer to this is Eh?  What are you on about?  No, really: what?.

(A warning before I start: I’m about to go off on one.  Even by my standards, this is big.  You might want to go and make tea.)

The general thesis of the article is this:

Bioethics, in its current form, has bullying tendencies. Ironically, it often adopts a paternalistic attitude towards clinicians, treating them as an ethically deficient species.  Although bioethics should not shy away from pointing out ethical concerns in medical practice, sometimes forcefully, it must not give way to negativism or, worse still, to a zeal to condemn.  Clinicians are easy targets and, without a command of the fancy theories and language of the accusers, possess few means to respond formally.

Is the thesis true? more…

Philosophy, Bioethics and Otherworldliness

31 Aug, 12 | by Iain Brassington


So Brian L picked up on Catarina’s post that picked up on Brian E’s post that picked up on the ever-simmering stuff about male circumcision – and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ latest policy position in particular – with the comment “Philosophers are a bit unworldly, but this is still quite something”.  I take the implication of that to be that, even by the standards of philosophers, this debate is abstract and abstruse and perhaps even a little omphalosceptic.

The comment reminds me of a conversation that Muireann Quigley and I had with someone – I can’t remember who – a couple of IAB’s ago: this unknown person – whom I think was a medic rather than a philosopher – was wondering aloud about the number of papers on things like enhancement, and IVF, and so on, and whether there weren’t more important things for bioethicists to think about – notably what to do about the various things that actually do directly threaten the life and welfare of real people right now. more…

Congratulations, Peter Singer

12 Jun, 12 | by Iain Brassington

Just a quick post to note that Peter Singer has been made a Companion of the Order of Australia – which is, apparently, the Aussie equivalent of a KBE.  The right-wing press ain’t happy – but irrespective of whether or not you agree with his claims, or his methods, Singer’s contribution to bioethics (and ethics more widely) is undeniable.  And since it’s not the role of the academy to say things that’ll make people happy, the fact that he has a record of saying things that don’t make people happy says nothing about his deserving the award.

H/T Brian Leiter.

CFP: Wellbeing and Public Policy

20 Apr, 12 | by Iain Brassington

This may be of interest to readers…

MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory – Ninth Annual Conference
Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT), University of Manchester
5th – 7th September 2012

Workshop on Well-being and Public Policy: Call for Abstracts

David Cameron, in a recent speech on introducing national measures of well-being to inform public policy, claimed that the UK government is aiming to measure the progress of the nation, “not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life.” In short, the UK government is looking to measure the nation’s well-being in order to “help make a better life for people.” Other governments and international organizations are also increasingly focusing upon well-being as a policy goal.

This workshop will focus on whether, and how, public policy can and should be informed, in some way, by considerations of the public’s well-being. There will be up to 12 speakers in total, who will be invited to give a 30 minute presentation, followed by a discussion. Potential areas of interest include (but are not limited to):

  • The role of well-being in public policy
  • The limits of political utilitarianism
  • Paternalism and well-being
  • The implications of different theories of well-being for public policy
  • The interaction between different measures of well-being and public policy

If you are interested to present during this workshop, please send to one or both of us an abstract of no more than 500 words with your full name and institutional affiliation before May 15th.

Sam Wren-Lewis (University of Leeds):
Tim Taylor (visiting research fellow, University of Leeds):

Further details about the conference available at

JOB: Research Fellow in Bioethics/ Philosophy

9 Mar, 12 | by Iain Brassington

School of Health and Population Sciences/ College of Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Birmingham

This post was created as a result of securing funds under the EU FP7 security call for collaborative research project SURVEILLE (Surveillance: Ethical Issues, Legal Limitations and Efficiency). In brief, SURVEILLE is a multidisciplinary project combining law, ethics, sociology and technology analysis is reviewing the impacts of different surveillance systems used to counter terrorism and serious crime, working with manufacturers and end-users. This post will support Heather Draper to conduct an evaluation of an ethics advisory service for technology developers and users that is being organised and run by Professor Tom Sorell (Centre for the Study of Global Ethics).

The post-holder will be based in Medicine, Ethics, Society and History (MESH) in the School of Health and Population Sciences, College of Medical and Dental Sciences. As such, the post-holder will work closely with Heather Draper and must be willing and able to contribute to the research effort in MESH (including making applications for further funding, as well research outputs, typically articles in high impact peer review journals). Accordingly, we are looking for a candidate who is both competent to conduct the evaluation (using qualitatively analysed interviews) of the advisory service and able work in bioethics, as well as being willing to engage with some of the philosophical work required for SURVEILLE.

Full details here; apply via this page.

Exporting and Using Medical Equipment

20 Sep, 11 | by Iain Brassington

A student writes:

I am a 5th Year Medical Student involved in a charity organisation that collects medical goods that are recycled/past expiry dates but still in good condition for re-use/excess from stocks, and aims to provide more impoverished clinics and hospitals abroad with these goods through students’ electives.

I have been trying to find ethical guidelines on this on the Net but have failed to find anything useful. 

Would you be able to help me on this matter?

We have already excluded any drugs/saline/liquid form of anything as I know that they will most definitely not be permitted.  However, the kind of equipments we collect include items such as sterile surgical tools such as scalpel blades, forceps, syringes, gloves, bandages, blood sugar monitors, catheter bags, etc.

I would very much appreciate your help!

I’m throwing this out to readers, because you may be able to suggest things.

For my part, I have a slightly sneaky feeling that whatever problems there might be with this are regulatory rather than stricto sensu ethical; I don’t think that there’re any standout ethical problems, but there’s a few things that’ve crossed my mind as possibilities that I suppose might be raised.

In no particular order, I suppose that some people might have worries like these: more…

Consultation: Emerging Biotechnologies

6 Apr, 11 | by Iain Brassington

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has announced that it has opened a consultation on emerging biotechnologies:

The Council is seeking views on the ethical issues posed by emerging biotechnologies. Your views will be valuable in shaping and informing the deliberations of a Working Party that was recently set up to consider this topic.

The Working Party is interested in the way society and policy makers respond to new biotechnologies and how benefits from these technologies can be secured in an ethically appropriate manner. This issue will be considered in light of both current examples of emerging biotechnologies, such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology, and older cases, such as genetically modified crops and assisted reproduction technologies.

All responses will be considered carefully by the Working Party. We aim to publish our final report, including recommendations to policy makers, in autumn 2012.

The consultation document and response form are available to download here.

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