Skip navigationPerils of publication


1. Scientific journals - muzzled!

2. Smallpox toolkit

3. Physical secrets

4. Biowar treasure chest

5. Making the decision



A farm worker leads a cow infected with the foot-and-mouth disease in Argentina in 2001. Associated Press.














There are still scientists who hold that free publication is the only way to ensure safety.


Foot-in-mouth disease
If the government swung too far toward openness in releasing information on bioweapons, it may have moved too far in the opposite direction while trying to prevent the release of part of a recent National Research Council on agricultural bioterrorism. (Agricultural bioterror involves deliberately spreading plant or animal diseases.)

These diseases can be exorbitantly expensive, as the British found during the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. In fact, deliberate release of this disease (which did not, apparently, occur in the United Kingdom) was one of the hellfire scenarios cranked out by the NRC researchers, according to R. James Cook, a wheat scientist from Washington State University and a member of the committee that wrote the NRC report.

cow, collapsed on ground. Thin worker struggles to get the cow on it's feet.

"As we put this information together, we asked ourselves, is this information that could in fact give a terrorist a clue? And we did hold back information based on our own judgment," Cook says. "What we did put in there was all from the public literature, (and) is already in the public domain."

But that didn't satisfy the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which requested the National Academy of Sciences withhold the report from publication. After considerable exchanges between the NAS and USDA, the NAS decided to withhold one chapter for publication, and make it available on a restricted basis.

The chapter, Cook says, "Does not contain sensitive stuff, in my opinion." But he, like other sources, emphasized the role of judgment in censorship. "Another judgment was that even though it was all public, nobody has put it all together in one place, and so it does smack of being a road map for terrorists. It does come down to a judgment call, but I was surprised, disappointed that it was not made available" (see " Publish and Perish? ..." in the bibliography)

Summing up
What to make of debate over security and scientific publication? Whether due to the growing power of technology, or to the growing threat of terrorists, the nifty tricks of the biotech trade, published in journals that only a nerd could love, are beginning to look a bit like a loaded gun.

Still, there are scientists who hold that free publication is the only way to ensure safety. Eugene Garfield, who has devoted decades of his life to studying scientific publication, for example, says, "I think that scientists are capable of deciding what they want to publish and don't want to publish. I'm very ambivalent about it. I really think that it's getting very close to the point where you will not be able to do your work" due to encroaching secrecy. "If I had to make a choice, I'd say no, none [censorship]."Newsweek cover shows maskd, white-suited emergency workers pouring liquid from metal container into large yellow drum. Headline reads "Anthrax, a spreading scare. The medical facts.'

Newsweek goes bio: FDA.

More common, however, are those who give grudging admission to the need for some censorship, in some cases. Martin Blume, for example, of the American Physical Society, sees a disturbing amount of gray in the picture. "I don't know the answer. The net result is that I will never say 'never.' Somebody can reveal to me circumstances that I never thought of, where it would not be unreasonable to censor."

Whether that would help is uncertain, he adds. " No matter what anyone says, there's a way around it. If a journal is not going to publish, it can be up on the web. The fact that something has been suppressed calls attention to it. And there are too many other ways to get things all around the world. That's a difficulty."

Might not work anyway...
Amidst all of this wiggle-worded verbiage, we detect a grudging acceptance that absolutes, if they ever existed, are fading. It is possible to conceive, in other words, of articles that should not see the light of day. But whether scientists are smart enough to recognize and censor them is a second tough question.

"There is general agreement that if anyone has to do it, it is we in the scientific community who should do it," says wheat specialist Cook. "We don't want to have the security community, whoever that may be, or other outsiders, bring regulations down upon us. We have always been a self-monitoring, self-regulating enterprise."

So far, so good. "As to what we set aside as too sensitive, what criteria we use, that decision has not been made. It's just a philosophy that we will censor ourselves, and will use peer review to decide what might not be appropriate in the public domain."

And then comes the monkey wrench. "When it comes down, there are bound to be as many opinions among peers as there are regarding any other issue that is on the edge of what we know. And then what? That's the question..."

The you dive into our bibliography, that's what.

The Why Files

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