Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Belmont Report was published in 1978, goddammit!

Bioethicists Barron Lerner and Arthur Caplan have published a nice essay about using history to make better decisions today. I will comment on their main points in a separate post, but I want to address separately the authors’ repetition of a common error: the suggestion that the Belmont Report was published in 1979.

The Belmont Report was published in 1978, goddammit!

[Barron H. Lerner and Arthur L. Caplan, “Judging the Past: How History Should Inform Bioethics,” Annals of Internal Medicine 164, no. 8 (April 19, 2016): 553–57, doi:10.7326/M15–2642.

Here’s the mistake as it appears in the essay:

The public outcry over the revelations about the Tuskegee syphilis study was next, thanks to a 1972 newspaper exposé. This scandal led to the establishment of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which issued the famous Belmont Report in 1979 and the 3 following ethical principles designed to prevent future calamities: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.

In fact, the National Commission did not issue any documents in 1979, for it went out of existence in October 1978:

A month prior to its disbandment, on 30 September 1978, the Commission had formally transmitted the report to the president and other officials:

The Government Printing Office published the report, including the letters of transmittal, as DHEW Publication No. (OS) 78–0012:

What do you suppose that “78” stands for?

On 18 April 1979, nearly seven months after the transmittal, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare published the Belmont Report in the Federal Register and solicited public comment. And it has been reprinted in many places since.

If scholars wish to cite the Federal Register version for convenience, that’s fine, but they still need to indicate the original date of publication. Here’s the APA style folks on the subject:

If you are citing something that has been republished or reprinted, the entry in the reference list should use the date of the version you read. At the end, append the date of the original work or the source of the reprint (see Examples 21 and 26, pp. 203–204, for details on how to format the reference). In text, cite both dates: first the original version, then the version you read, separated by a slash (Freud, 1900/1953).

Freud died in 1939, so citing something he wrote to 1953 alone would be silly. As silly as saying that a commission that folded in 1978 issued a report in 1979.

Citing Medicine, 2nd edition, which is the official style guide for the Annals of Internal Medicine is less clear, but it does give this example for a book first published in 1932 and reprinted in 1960:

Herrick CJ. The thinking machine. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1960, c1932. 372 p. (Chicago reprint series).

Citing that work to 1960 alone would mislead readers.

The gap between 1978 and 1979 is less substantial, but it still matters. DHEW issued draft regulations, based in part on the report, on 14 August 1979. Doing so just 10 months after the release of the report was hasty enough. Doing so just four months after (as those who cite the report to April 1979 are implying) would have been insane. History is more than names and dates, but names and dates do matter.

The Belmont Report was published in 1978, goddammit!

PS. The Lerner and Caplan essay includes another chronological howler:

Students also learn about the efforts to address past abuses, such as the publication of the Belmont Report in 1979 and the establishment of institutional review boards by U.S. federal law in 1991.

IRBs made it into U.S. federal law in 1974, and by 1979 Caplan was falsely assuring us that their impact had been “miniscule.” His error here reminds us that eyewitnesses to history are not always the best witnesses to history.

1 comment:

Mark Hakkarinen, M.A. said...

Nice detective work. I've checked and have corrected this archived page of the President's Council on Bioethics listing former Bioethics Commissions and their published works to correctly note the Belmont Report as having been first published in 1978: