Global Medical Cultures and Law


November 20, 2017

Guillaume Lachenal - Department of History and Philosophy of Sciences, Université Paris Diderot

A talk and discussion of Professor Lachenal's essay "Experimental Hubris and Medical Powerlessness: Notes From a Colonial Utopia, Cameroon, 1939-1949"

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February 12, 2018

Laura Foster - Department of Gender Studies, Indiana University

"Modalities of Materiality: Peoples, Plants, and Patents in South Africa"

Hoodia gordonii is a succulent plant known by Indigenous San peoples for a variety of uses, including for food, water, and energy. In 1998, South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) made claims to knowing the plant as molecule when they obtained patent rights to Hoodia’s chemical compositions in the hopes that they, in partnership with Pfizer and eventually Unilever, could develop Hoodia as an anti-obesity product. San peoples, however, opposed the patenting of their indigenous knowledge. As a heterogeneous group, San did not all agree, but they mobilized through their own South African San Council to demand a benefit-sharing agreement in 2003 whereby CSIR granted all San across Southern Africa 6% of their revenue from the sale of Hoodia. A few years after the San-CSIR signing ceremony, the South African San Council also negotiated a second agreement, this time with Afrikaner Hoodia growers in South Africa who were supplying plants for a global herbal supplement industry. Three material-discursive meanings of Hoodia thus stood at the center of these agreements — Hoodia as molecule patented by CSIR, Hoodia as cultivated by Hoodia growers, and Hoodia as a plant found in nature and known by San peoples.

Using a feminist decolonial technoscience approach, this talk examines how San peoples, Hoodia growers, and CSIR scientists made claims of attachment to different materialities of Hoodia (as molecule, as cultivated, and as from nature) to assert rights of belonging in South Africa through struggles over patent ownership and benefit sharing. What becomes apparent is how such claims were informed in unequal ways by colonial and apartheid understandings of race, indigeneity, and gender as the San African San Council worked towards establishing meanings of San as modern political subjects, CSIR scientists sought recognition as producers of science located in the global south, and Afrikaner Hoodia growers aimed to position themselves as belonging to a changing post-apartheid South Africa. In turn, this talk analyzes how Hoodia’s materialities (e.g. chemicals and seeds) refused and/or aligned with the forces of law and science that sought to contain them. In doing so, it argues for an emphasis on multiple modalities or expressions of human and nonhuman materiality to understand modes of unequal belonging within South Africa.


April 23, 2018

Mario Biagioli - Science and Technology Studies, History, and Law, University of California-Davis

"Medical Ghostwriting: Strange Appropriations and Emergent Authorship"

Pharmaceutical companies are known to commission ghostwritten articles to so-called medical education companies according to a careful publication plan developed by, or in concert with, their marketing departments. Provided with a topic, an argument, relevant data, and about $25,000, these writing companies produce texts highlighting the benefits of their clients’ drugs while occasionally downplaying their dangerous side effects.  As a manuscript nears completion, one or more leading academic researchers are contacted and asked to provide comments. And if they seem positively responsive to the paper’s claims, they are invited to put their name on the manuscript and take on the role of its official authors.  Typically, these articles’ published versions do not mention the role and identity of the ghostwriters, their affiliation to their "writing services companies", and those companies' work-for-hire relationship with the pharmaceutical industry.  They also tend to misrepresent the actual contribution, if any, of the people listed as authors. (Sergio Sismondo has carefully analyzed these scenarios).

Perhaps because these works seem to go against all ethical norms on the books, it has been paradoxically difficult for the critics to pinpoint exactly what kind of ethical or legal violation they instantiate.  An accusation that is frequently leveled at them is that they amount to plagiarism:  the “real authors” (the ghostwriters) are not mentioned in the byline, which instead lists the name of people who had little or nothing to do with their production – “fake authors” who pass off as theirs the work of the “real authors”.   But one could as easily say that these texts amount to “reverse plagiarism”:  an authorship scenario in which the “author” (in this case the pharmaceutical company) pays a non-author (the academic scientist who simply agrees to put his/her name on it) to take over and claim authorship for its texts -- a bit like paying a couple to take your child and claim him/her as theirs. 

By showing how the notion of plagiarism can be used to produce profoundly different (and indeed contradictory) readings of the authorship of these texts, I argue that we are in fact not witnessing a simple case of appropriation but rather the emergent of a new author function – as problematic or undesirable as we may find it.   What we see emerging is a new genre of scientific publication that poses unprecedented challenges to determining not only who the authors of these texts may be, but also the very meaning of authorship. 

Finally, this intricate authorship configuration follows from the pharmaceutical companies’ desire to disseminate these articles as drugs advertisements presented as scientific articles.  The marketing and valorization of drugs is therefore connected (and may even require) an intricate and largely opaque reconfiguring of the “author” – one in which the “real” corporate author disappears to be replaced by the name of a person (a doctor) who is typically associated with a famous hospital or medical school. In this case, more than in any other literary genre, the name of the person appearing as author seems to function like a brand, thus construing plagiarism as an appropriation of trademarks rather than texts.  At the same time, the name of that academic can function like a brand only if s/he is connected to a prestigious medical institution.  (Most readers would not know who Dr. White is, but they may know that Johns Hopkins – her university or hospital – is a top research institution, thus lending credibility to the article). One could thus say that the author/brand of a ghostwritten article is the name of the hospital that appears as the “author’s” institutional affiliation

June 7-9, 2018

Workshop for a special issue of the Osiris Journal

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