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Ethics, Like Law and Science, Evolves Over Time
A ghostwriting scandal which seems bad now, might not have posed an ethical concern in the year 2000.

I read the articles about Prof. Barbara Sherwin's experience in 2000 with a ghost-writer ("McGill professor caught in ghostwriting scandal," August 24, 2009, and "Why did she lend her good name?" August 26, 2009) with shock, and not for the reasons that you might at first assume.

"there, but for the grace of God, go I"

In 2001 a medical publisher approached me and asked me to write an article on ethical dilemmas surrounding the decision to treat patients who want a prescription for medications, but who are unwilling to make lifestyle changes. These patients want treatment that is not medically necessary, but they believe it would enhance their lifestyle, for example, a non-obese woman wants a weight loss drug. I replied that I didn't have time to write such an article. The publisher said that they could help.

They offered to have a researcher go through my relevant publications and, using what I had written, patch together an article that I could change as I pleased. It never occurred to me that accepting that offer would be unethical – and I'm an ethicist. I thought of this offer as equivalent to having a research assistant, which is a universal practice in academia.

As matters turned out, the draft I was sent was completely unacceptable to me – it's still filed as "original bad version." However, having agreed to contribute an article, I felt obliged to produce one, which I did. But had the original article consisting of my previous work been acceptable, I would not, at that time, have thought it unethical to publish it. (I would have regarded it as more or less the equivalent of a republication of one of my articles, an occurrence that has happened hundreds of times.)

The key words here are at that time. Lord Denning, the famous House of Lords judge whose judgments are studied by most law students in the Anglo-American world, once famously said that "you can't look at 1956 events with 1964 glasses." What he meant was that when a judge sets the legal "reasonable standard of care," falling below which constitutes actionable negligence, the judge must look at what was regarded as reasonable care in 1956 when the event occurred, not what is seen as reasonable care in 1964.

Just as the law evolves and science evolves, so too ethics evolves and something we now rightly regard as unethical might not have been so characterized in the past.

Much has changed in the last few years with respect to the ethics of academic publishing. Practices that were considered normal just a few years ago, such as placing on research articles the names of people who did not participate directly in the research (for instance, a principal investigator whose only connection with the research was that his research grant supported it) are now considered unethical.

All of the above having been said, there is conduct that should always have been and was seen as unethical. Examples include publishing fraudulent data or, its first cousin, "massaged data" (unethically finding an "excuse" to drop data that make the results less convincing); falsifying results; signing off on an article that gives the impression that the famous researcher author has done the research, when that is not the case and, in some cases that have recently come to light, where the famous researcher had not even read the article to which his name is attached. (To be clear, none of these offences have been raised in relation to Sherwin's work.)

Leading medical and science journals have taken steps, including adopting a code of ethics, to try to ensure the authenticity of the research that they publish, even going so far in some cases as repeating the research before publication. These steps also have goals of ensuring that credit is given only where credit is due; that credit is not wrongfully withheld; and that conflict of interest is not present or, at the very least, is disclosed.

Good ethics depend on good facts and we should not rush to judgment, but wait and see what the facts are in Sherwin's case. She has said that "she made a mistake" in having her name on this article, but she might be looking at the situation with 2009 glasses.

Finally, I've written this article because I had one of those "there, but for the grace of God, go I" moments in relation to my article that I describe above, when I read the Gazette articles about Sherwin. Also, if the facts in her case are as I'm guessing they will be, I think we would find many similar cases in all our big research universities and it's not fair if she becomes the scapegoat.

I should add that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met Barbara Sherwin, and that no person at McGill University has spoken to me about her case and the university has no knowledge that I am writing this article.

Margaret Somerville DCL, LL.D, is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.

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Originally published in the Montreal Gazette, August 28, 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.                                              C16SE09

 

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