Skip navigationPerils of publication
POSTED FEB 27, 2003

 

1. Scientific journals - muzzled!

2. Smallpox toolkit

3. Physical secrets

4. Biowar treasure chest

5. Making the decision

 

The smallpox virus, shown here in a 1975 electronmicrograph, poses one of the gravest biowarfare threats. AP Photo.

 

 

 

Better safe than sorry? Journals like these are available at most university libraries, and often online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The transition from lab work to publication has never been easy, but there's a new bump in the road for sensitive research. Photo from NASA.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Classified information? It wasn't in 1901, when England was struck by bubonic plague and reports like this one from Liverpool were published widely. Image from Pathways to the Past (UK).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cream of the scientific journals will quit publishing articles that endanger national security. Does this make us safer? Or would publishing these articles actually prepare us for the worst?

 

The beauty of self-censorship
On Feb. 15, the editors of Science, Nature, and other big scientific titles announced that they would evaluate incoming articles to check whether they might help terrorists make better weapons, especially bioweapons.

Black and white image of ovular, grainy virus particles against white background. If the editors found such an article, they would either soften the technical details or reject it. The decision followed a similar move by the American Society for Microbiology.

The moves toward self-censorship were a stark break with tradition among scientists who normally guard their right to decide about publication without interference.

But the changes were not just a result of pressure from security-obsessed government minders, although there was plenty of that. To some degree, the clampdowns were a response to the ominous nature of what the editors could read in their own journals. Specifically, recent articles showed how the tools of biotechnology may allow a building-block approach to bioweapons:

When scientists added one gene to mousepox, the virus was suddenly lethal to vaccinated mice. Smallpox is closely related to mousepox. Could adding one gene to smallpox unleash a global epidemic?

Other scientists cobbled together a new virus from genes of two existing viruses. Could bio-weaponeers use the technique to create a deadly hemorrhagic fever like ebola that spreads through the air as easily as the common cold?

Scientists built a working polio virus by splicing together molecules according to the virus's freely available genetic sequence. With genetic information on numerous pathogens now appearing in scientific journals, sophisticated bioterrorists might be able to make weapons without even acquiring the deadly organisms.

An alternative biowar-without-pathogens technique arose after scientists built smallpox proteins in the lab. The proteins, in cell culture, were able to deactivate immune molecules, indicating that they had pathogenic activity. (For details on these developments, see "Publish and Perish..." in the bibliography).

Researcher sporting a protective, white uniform and gloves peers into microscope in a lab. Once scientific articles like these see the light of day, they can be distributed in paper form to libraries around the world and reproduced in online databases. Is this smart? Should terrorists learn how to juice up smallpox, which kills at least 25 percent of its victims? Should "rogue nations," however defined, get help in making a virus that combines two untreatable illnesses? (For a view of how the Soviet Union used Western science in its huge bioweapon program, see "Biohazard" in the bibliography.)

It's tempting to conclude that these "advances" are simply too dangerous to be published, but there are counter-arguments. In the Internet age, there is always somewhere else to publish.

On a practical level, advocates of free publication note that bioweaponeers can make fearsome weapons without gene splicing. If dangerous ideas are not published, who will think to devise defenses before the fearsome new weapons are used?

Another argument against censorship celebrates the extraordinary productivity of the scientific system, in which scientists almost always make publication decisions free of government interference. The "dangerous" articles cited above, after all, are part of the cutting edge of biological science, and restricting research into relationships among genes, organisms and environment could impede scientific progress.

Unrestricted publication of scientific advances has been a bedrock principle of most fields of science, and thus of modern technology.

Unless the exact method is published, others cannot repeat the research; such "replication" is a critical step in keeping scientists honest and science on track.

Science moves step by step, from one published advance to the next.

Yellow, aged sheet of paper with typed description of bacteria growth in culture.

The role of publication
Where ancient Greek mathematicians were content to mutter "Eureka!" while followers incised the breakthrough of the week in wet clay or fresh papyrus, today's scientists make their announcements in the form of articles published in journals controlled by their colleagues. Publishing in these so-called "refereed" or "peer-reviewed" journals is so crucial that many scientists consider it virtually synonymous with the act of discovery.

"It's the old-fashioned notion that research is not finished unless it's published and made available to the scientific community, and also to the public," says Eugene Garfield, president and founding editor of a magazine for biologists called The Scientist. "If people cannot read your research, in many cases, they can't attempt to duplicate it... Science is a communal process, an exchange of ideas, and you build on one another. Oral communication is totally unreliable" for this purpose.

Garfield has long promoted a key technique for assessing the importance of a scientist's work that reflects the role of publication: counting how many times a publication is mentioned by other scientists. He is chairman emeritus of the Institute for Scientific Information, which compiles citations for that purpose.

The prospect of censorship, even self-censorship, gives most scientists the willies, but in the end, editors of Science, Nature and other prestigious journals agreed that times have changed. In explaining their decision to censor themselves, they explained the situation this way: "We recognize that the prospect of bioterrorism has raised legitimate concerns about the potential abuse of published information, but also recognize that research in the very same field will be critical to society in meeting the challenges of defense" (see "Statement on ..." in the bibliography).

Smallpox. It would be an even better killer if it could sidestep vaccines. Wanna try something really nasty?

 
 
 
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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2003, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.