Should bioethicists go ninja?

Michael Cook
30 Nov 2013
Reproduced with Permission

There is still life in most famous bioethics article of all time, "After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?" This was 2012 article in the February issue of Journal of Medical Ethics by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, two Italian bioethicists working in Australia. First reported as a BioEdge scoop, the news quickly ran around the world in newspapers, blogs, radio and TV.

The reaction was overwhelmingly hostile. Minerva, the corresponding author, says that she received more than 200 hate mails and death threats over the next six months. It was one of the most stressful times of her life. More importantly, she warns, the poisonous reaction was an ominous sign of the danger posed by internet-fuelled bullies to academic freedom.

Something, she writes in the latest issue of Bioethics, has to be done. "If academics find themselves increasingly involved in media uproars, and become more reluctant to write what they really think, this is ultimately harmful to society as a whole."

Her solution is to go ninja: to fight for bold new ideas masked in anonymity. In other words, controversial articles should be or could be published anonymously in academic journals. This would have two benefits.

First, peace of mind. She writes plaintively that "Our productivity decreased for the weeks following the publication of the paper, while we were worn down by the hate emails and requests for interviews from journalists. More generally, thinking and writing are activities that require a minimal level of tranquillity, something we certainly lacked in those weeks." Anonymity would preserve the bliss of solitude.

Second, debate would be livelier. "Giving academics the option to publish their research anonymously or under a pseudonym will give them the opportunity to develop new ideas, to challenge old biases, to solve old and new problems and to make the world a place where prejudice, ignorance and irrationality are challenged and, hopefully, defeated."

Iain Brassington, writing on the JME blog, was sympathetic with the ideas in her original article but not with her latest brainstorm: "The proposal would be, in other words, unworkable, and undesirable. It'd stultify academia, not guarantee its freedom."