Skip navigationPerils of publication


1. Scientific journals - muzzled!

2. Smallpox toolkit

3. Physical secrets

4. Biowar treasure chest

5. Making the decision


Enrico Fermi - the "architect of the nuclear age" -- co-invented and designed the first man-made nuclear reactor, starting it up in a historic secret experiment at the University of Chicago on Dec. 2, 1942. U.S. Department of Energy.





Scientific secrets eventually leak out.


History: how helpful?
War brings out secrecy. Among scientists, a classic example was the World-War II-era Manhattan Project, where a gaggle of egg-headed physicists cooked up the atomic bomb. Isolated on a mesa in New Mexico, the deeply-enshrouded Project was nonetheless pierced by spies who helped the Soviet Union bolt together its own atomic goodies in record time.

Black and white photograph of middle-aged man in suit standing in front of chalkboard and gesturing at diagram. Back then, the question of publishing results never arose: Nuclear-weapons research was done on the government's dime, in the government's labs, by the government's employees. In the titanic battle against the evil Axis, scientists naturally took sides, especially the many top Los Alamos physicists who were Jewish emigres from Hitler's Europe. "The situation was different; there was a world at war," said Martin Blume, editor-in-chief of the American Physical Society journals.

Outside the Manhattan Project, he says, "Patriotism would cause people to withhold publication, although even then there were objections" to the practice. Still, while secrecy slowed the spread of secrets, it did not halt it entirely.

Tough task
Today, as Blume says, "it's more difficult to enforce an embargo." For one thing, science is more international -- most articles submitted to his eight journals come from outside the United States, he says, and authors could easily sidestep any U.S.-based restrictions by publishing elsewhere.

Such as on the Internet. Just about anybody can set up a web-site -- on the Internet, they don't know if you're a mad dog, a research physicist, Timothy McVeigh Jr., or a biologist "advisor" to Osama Bin Laden.

The field of physics, in fact, is the prototype of a new type of, hands-off, Internet-based scientific publication. arXiv (pronounced "archive") publishes articles on the web without screening. Many physicists use the system, founded by physicist Paul Ginsparg, as a quick way to get results to colleagues. "In physics, there is widespread use of the Ginsparg archive," says Blume. "Many of the articles that we ultimately publish have first been submitted there, and we encourage that."

But the web publication could be helpful to the bad guys, Blume indicates. "If I were a terrorist looking through the literature, that's the first place I'd look." (Interested in new kinds of nuclear weapons?)

Man watches as hazy yellow smoke rises from a pit holding dozens of white cylindrical containers and small red containers. A U.N. weapons inspector dismantles a fermentation vat prior to its destruction in 1996. AP photo.

arXiv founder Paul Ginsparg, who's now at Cornell University, says, essentially, that the Internet has made censorship unworkable and nearly impossible. It's ironic, perhaps, that the Internet has made scientific communication so easy that a computer network invented by the U.S. Defense Department is being used to spread technologies that could be used to attack the United States. "I haven't the remotest interest nor desire to compromise national security, or to provide a tool for someone else to do so," Ginsparg told us by e-mail. "The problem is this is an automated distribution site in which a couple of hundred new submissions appear every day, and no one scans them looking for such potential threats before they appear."

(Indeed, behind all this movement toward censorship lies the questionable assumption that it is possible to figure out the implications of current scientific research. We don't have time to "go there," but we do wonder if anyone has the smarts - or the time - to do the vetting in any particular field.)

If somebody pointed out that an article might expose principles that could help terrorists, Ginsparg continued, "We'd have to wonder whether the act of removing it would actually draw more attention to it." If the submitter disagreed with the removal, a process would be needed to justify the removal - which would be far beyond the capacity of a dumb computer.

Censorship, in other words, would involve too much work and too much time, for a project that was supposed to save work and time.

men hose down a pile of white buckets and red lidspiled in a dirt pit.
Workers under the supervision of UN inspectors destroy growth media which could have been used to produce biological weapons in Iraq in 1996. AP photo.

Strength in numbers
Furthermore, the arXiv is only one of millions of URLs where research could appear. "Once it's out there and seen," Ginsparg added, "it will presumably be redistributed among the parties you don't want to see it anyway, whether or not it had appeared in a peer-reviewed journal or on a site like arXiv, or on some university web site or personal home page anywhere in the world. The virtual communities of miscreants could be well organized in this regard in harvesting sensitive materials."

Finally, turning to the government for advice might just backfire, Ginsparg says. "I'm as patriotic as the next person, but many of our current national policies strike me as so incoherent, inconsistent, and unintelligible that it might be difficult to accept on faith some government dictum in this regard. The point is that it all becomes labor-intensive regardless of what policy is employed."

The United States used to supply coherent and consistent help for bioweaponeers around the world. But not on purpose...


The Why Files

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