Publication of Sensitive Information in the Life Sciences

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Until recently, there were very few cases of problems related to the publication of research results in the life sciences that attracted significant public attention. Some specialists in bioterrorism, however, had warned that, given continuing advances in biotechnology, open publication could provide information of use to terrorists.43 The publication of the "mousepox" study, as well as other studies discussed in Chapter 1, made the issue a major concern for journal editors.44 The public perception of potential risks associated with publication of such information led to calls for scientific journals to refrain from publishing "dangerous" research or to delete some data from published research results in order to preclude others from replicating the results.45 Journals in the life sciences have responded in a number of ways to the concerns that published articles might provide useful knowledge or a roadmap for terrorists or rogue states.

In addition to the results of fundamental research, the compilation, synthesis, and assessment of already published results in review articles may provide an understanding of a field that could guide or assist terrorists. Even more difficult are the concerns raised by reports that result when scientists are assembled to render their judgment as experts about particular problems, even when they rely completely on open sources of information.46 Against these risks, one must weigh the genuine service to the research community provided by review articles and the contributions of expert panels to informed public debate and decision-making on issues where scientific knowledge and perspective play a role. The Committee wanted to acknowledge these problems, which it expects will remain and perhaps grow as a concern, but they are beyond the scope of this report.

In response to the concerns about publication of research results, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) determined that the 11 journals it publishes would not restrict the information in the materials and methods section of articles. But ASM has also instituted formal procedures as part of the peer-review process for submitted articles so that reviewers address the potential risks of the research results to national security. At present, these policies apply primarily — although not exclusively — to research conducted on select agents.47 In 2002, of the 13,929 manuscripts submitted to ASM journals, 313 select agent manuscripts received special screening, and of these two manuscripts received additional screening by the full ASM publication board. The statistics through July 2003 are 8,557 manuscripts submitted, 262 select agent manuscripts screened, and none referred to the publication board for further review.48 Other journals, such as Science, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Nature, have also become alert to potential articles that could cause concern and have moved to develop review procedures of their own.

These new procedures have been the subject of intense discussion within the life sciences community and between life scientists and the national security community. In January 2003, for example, the National Academy of Sciences and the Center for Strategic and International Studies convened a one-day workshop to review the general question of sensitive information and specific issues of publication. Gatherings such as this attest to the seriousness with which the scientific and national security communities regard these issues but also to the difficulty of establishing productive communication — and even more of devising satisfactory, workable solutions.49

In mid-February 2003, the editors of the major journals in the life sciences, including Nature, Cell, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), published a joint statement on "Scientific Publication and Security."50 The statement, which appears in Box 3-3, was the outcome of discussions begun at the

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