“My class, Fundamentals of Writing and Research Ethics, is designed for students to start thinking about their own practice and who they want to be as a medical writer or editor,” says Medical Writing and Editing program instructor Alexandra Howson.
With a background that includes nursing, ten years in academia as a medical sociologist, and nearly two decades as a medical writer and researcher, Howson’s synoptic view of the medical arena provides students in “Fundamentals of Writing and Research Ethics” with essential insight into the myriad ways ethical issues arise in the working life of a medical writer and editor.
“I think a lot of ethics has to do with relationships and the way we communicate with each other around the work product,” Howson says. “It can be challenging to ask sensitive or brave questions that involve putting yourself out there, and my class is important because it gives you a chance to think that through before you find yourself in that situation.”
It can be challenging to ask sensitive or brave questions that involve putting yourself out there, and my class is important because it gives you a chance to think that through before you find yourself in that situation.Alexandra Howson, Medical Writing and Editing Certificate Instructor
The Ethics of interpretation
Howson begins her five-week course with a broad introduction into what ethics are, where they come from, and why they are so relevant to writing and editing in the biomedical field. She tailors the class, she says, to fit the different learning styles of students with backgrounds in science or the humanities. Howson delivers ethical lessons that apply across the field, from science publications and health journalism to patient and consumer health and continuing medical education.
“We look at the history of regulations and safety parameters, as well as the ethics around the conduct of research itself,” she says. “We touch on the rights of patients in clinical trials and also examine some of the research atrocities that contributed to changing the regulations around the conduct of research.”
Howson applies this framework to professional situations, including ethical issues around writing for principal investigators, the pitfalls of using data, and the regulations that guide writing and editing for continuing medical education. Ultimately, she says, she wants her students to address their ethical responsibilities as medical writers and editors.
“There is an assumption that the writer seamlessly represents what the findings show,” Howson says. “Of course, that is never the case. Interpretation is required for converting results into the context of the existing literature, so the writer is creating a story and making decisions about how the story will unfold. This is clearly a zone full of ethical issues. Most important for the medical writer and editor is to build an awareness for the chain of events that take place as small things can turn into significant ethical issues.”
Three key takeaways
Howson identifies what students will gain from her class:
- A strong sense for their own ethical principles. “This provides a foundation for approaching the ethical issues you might bump up against in your own practice as a writer or editor.”
- An ability to ask questions and flag elements that could potentially be an ethical issue: "This involves familiarizing yourself with questions that will help you open up areas of concern as well as documenting that concern so that there’s an audit trail.”
- The baseline texts and other tools and resources where medical writers and editors go when they have ethics-related questions: “An important part of the course will be building a network of like-minded people to talk things through with.”
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