Who is Afraid of the Big BroadBioethics? A Dialogue Between Authors of “Highlights in Bioethics Through 40 Years”

Guest Post: Pingyue Jin and Mark Hakkarinen

Article: Highlights in bioethics through 40 years: a quantitative analysis of top-cited journal articles

Dear readers of the JME’s blog, we hope this short dialogue below may prompt your interest to join us in this journey that explores the depth and width of the field of bioethics.

Everything starts from somewhere…

Pingyue: I think it all started with a blog post. Around May 2015, I found this webpage “Top 50 Bioethics Journals and Top 240 Most Cited Bioethics Articles Published Since 2009”, and I thought to myself: “What a fantastic idea! I wish I could have started with these papers when I first came to this field.” After that, this idea of identifying seminal bioethics papers lingered in my mind for weeks. Finally I picked up all my courage and wrote to the author of that post, Mark, who was then a total stranger and now a good friend. In the end of the email, I cautiously mentioned if I could join him in a project (funded only by our enthusiasm) to examine the part of bioethics represented by these highly-cited articles. Luckily, he said yes.

Mark: Though using top journals and most-cited articles was a preliminary idea, it is the very foundation of our work. My original approach was to retrieve the top 1,000 cited articles from bioethics-related journals, which covered 100 journals and 52,000 articles. After some discussion, we decided to focus on the top 20 articles each year, which we boldly refer to as the “highlights of bioethics”.

We are aware that citation count is a popular yet controversial indicator, and we refrain from associating citation counts with quality. Instead, we are more comfortable with the idea that citation counts can partly reflect the “influence” or “impact” of the article to its discipline. Citation in a sense indicates peer recognition (positive or negative), researchers cite others either to agree or disagree, to build on predecessors’ idea or to refute it and establish a new one. Either way, those top cited articles have research significance to both the field and the community.

Where we are going from here…

Pingyue: Truth to be told, as a junior researcher who cannot resist the temptation of peer recognition, I had wished this project may get us closer to the secret of high citation. I am sure the extraordinary quality of research plays a major role, but could there be something else? I hope in the future we may gather more parameters and establish an inferential statistical model to investigate the root of high citation.

Moreover, I have to admit this paper have made me restless because it keeps on challenging my vague understanding of the question “how to define bioethics”. After 7 years in this field, I still only see trees around, but fail to recognize the forest. Along our work, using which criterion/criteria to properly define bioethics has always been the issue. Although we settled with the journal as the main indicator to identify bioethics scholarship, I still feel we should have known it better.

Mark: We all agree that bioethics is an academic field full of diversity and vitality, but it seems that we haven’t reached a consensus about how to define it accurately with objective criteria. In short, our idea of the field of bioethics is broad and inclusive. It is clearly not limited to articles published in 100 journals. There are great books, films, and blogs discussing bioethical issues. But identifying the academic timber over time and its changing approach is useful. Is bioethics just a collection of topics? A set of methods or approaches? It’s more than principles of right action. It is changing based off choices available to people through medical technologies. It’s a collection of topics and ideas. It’s not just medicine, or religion, or science, or simply philosophy or policy. Perhaps bioethics is best seen as a way of looking at a field with an ethical lens.

Pingyue: True. But still, I wish we could find some consensus criteria to define the field properly. So we are thinking about sending out queries to journal editors and bioethics scholars: how do they approach the question of what is (good) bioethics. So if you are interested to enlighten us, please feel free to contact either me (jinpyue@foxmail.com) or Mark (Mark.Hakkarinen@georgetown.edu). We really appreciate your help and contribution. In the end, I want to express our gratitude to the reviewers and editor of JME. They have provided us with some great advice.

Mark: Right, I truly appreciate their helpful and constructive comments as well as the assistance of the dedicated staff of the Bioethics Research Library at Georgetown University during this project.

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