A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Tag: guidelines

An ethical strategy for improving the healthcare of brain-damaged patients

How can we improve the clinical care of brain-damaged patients? Individual clinicians, professional and patient associations, and other relevant stakeholders are struggling with this huge challenge.

A crucial step towards a better treatment of these very fragile patients is the elaboration and adoption of agreed-upon recommendations for their clinical treatment, both in emergency and intensive care settings. These recommendations should cover different aspects, from diagnosis to prognosis and rehabilitation plan. Both Europe and the US have issued relevant guidelines on Disorders of Consciousness (DoCs) in order to make clinical practice consistent and ultimately more beneficial to patients.

Nevertheless, these documents risk becoming ineffective or not having sufficient impact if they are not complemented with a clear strategy for operationalizing them. In other words, it is necessary to develop an adequate translation of the guidelines into actual clinical practice.

In a recent article that I wrote with Arleen Salles, we argue that ethics plays a crucial role in elaborating and implementing this strategy. The application of the guidelines is ethically very relevant, as it can directly impact the patients’ well-being, their right to the best possible care, communication between clinicians and family members, and overall shared decision-making. Failure to apply the guidelines in an ethically sound manner may inadvertently lead to unequal and unfair treatment of certain patients.

To illustrate, both documents recommend integrating behavioural and instrumental approaches to improve the diagnostic accuracy of DoCs (such as vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness syndrome, minimally conscious state, and cognitive-motor dissociation). This recommendation is commendable, but not easy to follow because of a number of shortcomings and limitations in the actual clinical settings where patients with DoCs are diagnosed and treated. For instance, not all “ordinary,” non-research oriented hospitals have the necessary financial, human, and technical resources to afford the dual approach recommended by the guidelines. The implementation of the guidelines is arguably a complex process, involving several actors at different levels of action (from the administration to the clinical staff, from the finances to the therapy, etc.). Therefore, it is crucial to clearly identify “who is responsible for what” at each level of the implementation process.

For this reason, we propose that a strategy is built up to operationalize the guidelines, based on a clarification of the notion of responsibility. We introduce a Distributed Responsibility Model (DRM), which frames responsibility as multi-level and multi-dimensional. The main tenet of DRM is a shift from an individualistic to a modular understanding of responsibility, where several agents share professional and/or moral obligations across time. Moreover, specific responsibilities are assigned depending on the different areas of activity. In this way, each agent is assigned a specific autonomy in relation to their field of activity, and the mutual interaction between different agents is clearly defined. As a result, DRM promotes trust between the various agents.

Neither the European nor the US guidelines explicitly address the issue of implementation in terms of responsibility. We argue that this is a problem, because in situations of scarce resources and financial and technological constraints, it is important to explicitly conceptualize responsibility as a distributed ethical imperative that involves several actors. This will make it easier to identify possible failures at different levels and to implement adequate corrective action.

In short, we identify three main levels of responsibility: institutional, clinical, and interpersonal. At the institutional level, responsibility refers to the obligations of the relevant institution or organization (such as the hospital or the research centre). At the clinical level, responsibility refers to the obligations of the clinical staff. At the interpersonal level, responsibility refers to the involvement of different stakeholders with individual patients (more specifically, institutions, clinicians, and families/surrogates).

Our proposal in the article is thus to combine these three levels, as formalized in DRM, in order to operationalize the guidelines. This can help reduce the gap between the recommendations and actual clinical practice.

Written by…

Michele Farisco, Postdoc Researcher at Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics, working in the EU Flagship Human Brain Project.

Farisco, Michele; Salles, Arleen. American and European Guidelines on Disorders of Consciousness: Ethical Challenges of Implementation, Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation: April 13, 2022. doi: 10.1097/HTR.0000000000000776

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Two measures against the culture of honorary authorships

Pär SegerdahlIt is important in the academia to know who actually contributed as author to scientific publications. Partly because authorship is meritorious when researchers seek positions and funding. Partly to facilitate investigations of suspected research misconduct.

These are two important reasons why there are guidelines for academic authorship. These guidelines state that an author should not only contribute to design, data collection, or analysis behind the publication. An author should also contribute to writing and revising the text. An author should moreover approve the final version of the text, and agree to be accountable if there are issues of accuracy or integrity.

The number of authors listed on academic publications tends to increase. As an extreme example, I might mention that in 2011, 140 scientific articles were published listing more than 1,000 authors!

One reason for the larger numbers of listed authors is, of course, that research is becoming increasingly complex and requires collaborations that are more extensive. However, much suggests that the number of undeserving authors increases. One could speak of a culture of honorary authorships within the academia.

There are strong driving forces behind the culture of honorary authorships. It can be about supporting cohesion in a research group by avoiding the uncomfortable decision to exclude team members who contributed minimally to the work being published. It can be about creating good relationships with influential people in the research community by giving them authorship; which they sometimes demand. It can be about increasing the chances of being published by having a famous researcher’s name in the author list. And since big research projects are prestigious, a long author list looks good. It creates pressure on the journals to publish what apparently required the contribution of so many skilled researchers – one thinks.

What can we do about it? In a recent article with the, nowadays, modest number of four authors, it is emphasized that guidelines for academic authorship, which have been around for a long time and are well known, obviously do not suffice. In the journal Insights, Stefan Eriksson, Tove Godskesen, Lars Andersson and Gert Helgesson write that we probably need to create psychological incentives against the culture of honorary authorships.

More specifically, two simple measures are suggested that can reduce undeserving authorships within the academia:

  1. When researchers seek positions, interview them about their contributions to publications that they include in the list of qualifications. If they are only honorary authors, they may not be able to account for the articles or how they contributed to them. Knowing that this is part of the recruitment process can create a psychological pressure to avoid undeserving honorary authorships.
  2. Divide authorship and citations scores with the number of authors. Awareness that scores ​​are calculated in this way creates a psychological pressure not to include undeserving authors in the author list.

One might object that this proposal instead risks excluding collaborators from contributing as authors, although they could very well be invited to function as well-deserved co-authors. This objection is addressed in the article. Instead of explaining the authors’ defense, I hope that my silence on this point will motivate readers of the Ethics Blog to read the important article. So that I do not lure you into some sort of honorary readership! How often do we not intimate that we have read something very interesting, which we in fact only skimmed through or heard summarized?

The academic culture of honorary authorships will not disappear easily. Ethical guidelines are obviously not enough. Of course, the best thing would be if we all became saints. While waiting for it to happen, psychological incentives may be needed to behave well.

Pär Segerdahl

Eriksson, S., Godskesen, T., Andersson, L., Helgesson, G. (2018). How to counter undeserving authorship. Insights. 31(1), p.1. DOI: http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.395

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