The process of scientific publication, through which new findings are reviewed for quality and then presented to the rest of the scientific community and the public, is a vital element in our national life. New discoveries reported in research papers have helped improve the human condition in myriad ways: protecting public health, multiplying agricultural yields, fostering technological development and economic growth, and enhancing global stability and security.
But new science, as we know, may sometimes have costs as well as benefits. The prospect that weapons of mass destruction might find their way into the hands of terrorists did not suddenly appear on September 11, 2001. A policy focus on nuclear proliferation, no stranger to the physics community, has been with us for many years. But the events of September 11 brought a new understanding of the urgency of dealing with terrorism. And the subsequent harmful use of infectious agents brought a new set of issues to the life sciences. As a result, questions have been asked by the scientists themselves and by some political leaders about the possibility that new information published in research journals might give aid to those with malevolent ends.
Journals that dealt especially with microbiology, infectious agents, public health and plant and agricultural systems faced these issues earlier than some others, and have attempted to deal with them. The American Society for Microbiology, in particular, urged the National Academy of Sciences to take an active role in organizing a meeting of publishers, scientists, security experts and government officials to explore the issues and discuss what steps might be taken to resolve them. In a one-day workshop at the Academy in Washington co-hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on January 9, 2003, an open forum was held for that purpose. A day later, a group of journal editors, augmented by scientist-authors, government officials and others, held a separate meeting designed to explore possible approaches.
What follows reflects some outcomes of that preliminary discussion. Fundamental is a view, shared by nearly all, that there is information that, although we cannot now capture it with lists or definitions, presents enough risk of use by terrorists that it should not be published. How and by what processes it might be identified will continue to challenge us, because - as all present acknowledged -- it is also true that open publication brings benefits not only to public health but also in efforts to combat terrorism.
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