May 20, 2024

Bioethicists need thick skins

Hi there,

Last year BioEdge had a world scoop when it was the first to report the publication of an article about infanticide in the Journal of Medical Ethics. “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” was irresistible fodder for the tabloid media. As they say in newsrooms, it had legs.

While some authors might have luxuriated in the publicity, Francesca Minerva, the corresponding author, did not. She received hundreds of abusive emails, including some death threats. Dealing with the fall-out robbed her of precious time and tranquil reflection in the ivory tower.

So she proposes in the journal Bioethics this month that contributors to academic journals should be able to make anonymous contributions. This will spare them the pain of publicity and to foster daring expeditions into the realm of dangerous ideas.

While I am sorry about the abuse, I am surprised by Dr Minerva naiveté. Everyone knows that the internet is a dark jungle of nastiness, of venomous creepy-crawlies and sabre-toothed carnivores. I moderate comments on BioEdge and MercatorNet and I have seen the most innocuous articles bucketed with bile. In her case, she was advancing ideas which have real world consequences. People living in the real world were bound to respond.

More than anything else, it is anonymity that generates the nastiness on the internet. I fail to see how anonymous publication in academic journals will function differently, albeit with Olympian sneers instead of four-letter words. Anonymity brings out the very worst in people. When they do not feel that they will be held to account, they lose their balance and perspective. Are bioethicists really that different?


Michael Cook
Anonymous publication is a bad idea.