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Bioethics for Profit?

Posted by Pete Shanks on October 14th, 2008


Dollars & Rod of Asclepius

Glenn McGee "has turned his Bioethics Education Network LLC [BENE] into a for-profit operation." Is there a significant difference between "behaving more and more like for-profit companies" and actually being one?

BENE is based electronically at bioethics.org, which says it is the "home to the bioethics education network and home to the editorial offices of bioethics.net, The American Journal of Bioethics [AJOB], blog.bioethics.net, and the largest collection of bioethics video in the world." (The suffix ".org" generally implies non-commercial use but that is not mandatory.)

AJOB is published by Routledge, an imprint of Taylor & Francis Health Sciences (T&F), itself a subsidiary of Informa PLC. The current AJOB front page copyright notice, which is out of date (it refers to 2005 and one of McGee's former employers), assigns the copyright to "Taylor & Francis Group & bioethics education network."

T&F is a huge business, to which AJOB is presumably unimportant. But AJOB is certainly important to McGee, in whose name the "bioethics.net" and "bioethics.org" domains are registered, and who left his last position under questionable circumstances earlier this year. A cursory web search suggests that BENE itself had turnover of less than $10,000 in Fiscal 2007, but McGee told the local Business Review that he was "trying to build what will become at least a $500,000 business in Albany" and that it might become so big he would have to move to New York City. Presumably this turnover would essentially be from AJOB, though the report is not absolutely clear and he talks of "developing a research division."

McGee has a history of strong statements about practical ethics, and indeed complained that Advanced Cell Technology was "protecting their intellectual property interest rather than the public interest" after he resigned from their Ethics Board. "Under AJOB's policy," he has said, "editorial conflicts of interest as well as peer reviewer conflicts of interest, including mandatory disclosure of all sources of income by all members of the editorial staff, are regularly subject to review."

The question now becomes: disclosure to whom, for review by whom, and how and why?

Does anyone else think that there is something strange about an explicitly for-profit bioethics operation, especially one that is so closely linked to a prominent journal? Could a push for profits lead to slanted publications? Would it increase the likelihood of conflicts of interest? Or at least of the appearance of conflicts of interest?

"Bioethic$" has been criticized before for close ties to industry. (PENN Medicine, which includes the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics where McGee once ran AJOB, describes itself unblushingly as "a $2.7 billion enterprise.") This is particularly important since one of the driving forces for the development of bioethics over the last generation has been the clearly perceived need for a check against potential abuses in medical research, precisely because it can lead to highly profitable enterprises.

Compensation in itself is normal, whether in cash or (for interns) in experience. But at what point does profitability become a problem? Is McGee crossing an ethical line here?

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Posted in Bioethics, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts


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