08 April 2013

PACE 2013 Bioethics conference, day 3

The last day of this conference featured a keynote by Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch. His slide deck is below. The slides are much better when accompanied by Ivan, who presents with an appealing, slightly dry sense of humour. Ivan’s talk was video recorded, but it is not up yet. Plus, I am not sure how good the sound will be; the mic was off because it was generating a lot of white noise.

To be honest, because I know Ivan’s work and follow many of the issues that he talks about online, I was expecting all this stuff to be old hat to me. But even I learned something that dropped my jaw to the floor.

Journals have always been in the business of selling reprints of single articles. Typically, these are sold to the author, who can then use them to send to other researchers. In the days before PDFs, you would often get little “reprint request cards” in the mail. Because of that experience, it never occurred to me that anyone other than the author of a paper would be interested in buying reprints of articles.

It turns out that medical journals have a huge market for article reprints: drug companies. Journals make hundred of millions of dollars a year selling paper reprints to drug companies. The drug companies distribute these to the pharmaceutical representatives, who in turn give them to physicians to promote whatever new drug the reps are promoting to the physicians.

Medical journals have a massive incentive to publish research articles that show new drugs in a positive light. They have no incentive to publish negative results. Who will buy articles that show something doesn’t work?

The last panel I saw was one on Internet security. It was devoted to a proposal that someone at Microsoft put forward that Internet security could be modelled after public health. For instance, just as an unvaccinated child might not be allowed to attend a school, a computer with the latest anti-virus software might not be allowed to connect to the Internet.

One issue around this is that any sort of public health model always involves a certain amount of coercion, since it only works if you have universal (or nearly so) adoption. This means less privacy, less autonomy, and so on.

Another question is whether public health is the right model for thinking about Internet security. What is the Internet equivalent of the plague or Spanish flu? Perhaps Stuxnet? Most computer viruses are not like Spanish flu, sort of “in the air”; there are more like sexually transmitted diseases, in that it requires very specific action on the part of the user to cause trouble (e.g., opening *.exe attachments; contacting that Nigerian prince). There are places where the analogy breaks.

A final point on the panel was that by buying a smartphone, you are taking on certain obligations. Smartphones are connected, and that means you are part of a community. You have responsibilities above and beyond paying your monthly phone bill.

Here’s a storify pf Ivan’s keynote:

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