Science Publishing in the Age of Bioterrorism

By Atlas, Ronald | Academe, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Science Publishing in the Age of Bioterrorism


Atlas, Ronald, Academe


Academic science depends on the public circulation of knowledge and research. Do new national security concerns threaten this process?

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax bioterrorism mailings, the science community and others worried that technical articles might inadvertently aid those planning acts of terrorism. Some authors asked the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) for permission to withhold critical information from articles submitted to journals published by the ASM because of concern that data could be misappropriated or that scientific findings could be misused.

As president of the ASM, I, along with the association's publications board, feared that if we acceded to these requests, we could alter the fundamental tenets of science by eliminating reproducibility of scientific research and undermining the peer-review process for evaluating scientific merit. We were also concerned that other publishers were, or soon would be, facing similar challenges and that the actions of individual publishers could have broad repercussions for the reliability of scientific communication.

Because changing the standards for scientific publishing could affect science in such important ways, the ASM felt that the National Academy of Sciences was the appropriate venue for discussing the issues facing life sciences publishers worldwide. I therefore asked the National Academy to host a workshop on life sciences publishing and national security concerns. The National Academy agreed to sponsor the workshop with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, whose participation would ensure inclusion of a national security perspective.

The workshop was planned for January 9, 2003, against a backdrop in which biodefense research was expected to expand greatly. This prospect had intensified questions about the secure conduct of scientific inquiry and about the publication of research results. Some had called for scientists and publishers to restrict the release of "sensitive" scientific findings. In addition, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, working with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, had alerted the science community of an impending policy for regulating "sensitive homeland security information."

Although most people recognize that science holds enormous promise for improving health and protecting the public, many worry that the open publication of scientific information provides opportunities for terrorists to misuse scientific information for deliberate harm. In October 2002, in testimony before the House Science Committee, the ASM expressed support for taking prudent steps to deny scientific and technical information to terrorists. But, at the same time, the ASM cautioned that restraining scientific publication and the international exchange of information could adversely affect public health by inhibiting scientific research and medical progress.

Concerns about the potential misuse of biological information raise a series of questions for researchers, academic institutions, and publishers: (a) Should more research in the life sciences be classified, and should academic institutions perform such research for the national interest? (b) Should publication or other dissemination of biomedical research results be restricted-even when the research is not classified? If so, what criteria should be used, and who should decide? (c) Should some aspects of biotechnological research, such as methods sections or genome sequences, be withheld from publication, and should publishers agree to publish articles with details omitted? (d) Should access to scientific information be managed and, if so, who should be responsible for controlling that access?

These questions capture the fundamental issues that framed the discussions at the January 2003 workshop. Participants considered it critical to explore \vhat might constitute dangerous information and whether to implement procedures to restrict dissemination of scientific information and access to knowledge in the life sciences to ensure security against bioterrorism. …

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