Journals censor results that could fuel bioterror

February 21, 2003

In a measure of the chilling epoch ushered in by September 11, the subsequent anthrax attacks and anxiety about bioterrorism, leading scientific journals and societies last week pledged to censor publication of results that could be misused by terrorists.

The editorial guidelines, announced at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's meeting, represent an attempt by the scientific community to police itself amid calls from security hawks in the Bush administration for more fundamental restrictions on dissemination of research.

"An editor may conclude that the potential harm of publication outweighs the potential societal benefits. Under such circumstances, the paper should be modified or not published," says the statement in this week's Science and Nature . Signatories include The Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association .

Ronald Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology, billed it as a "work in progress". He said: "We will have to continually seek to improve the process and more specifically define what sort of information might constitute a dangerous cookbook."

But editors face a tricky task of navigating the trade-off between cherished academic openness and security concerns.

One scenario could be a submission on how to make anthrax resistant to ciprofloxacin, a medication used to treat it, said Nicholas Cozzarelli, editor of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , in a statement.

Publication of such findings is critical, with resistant strains of bacteria likely to crop up spontaneously sooner or later.

The editors of Nature and Science said they had enlisted additional peer reviewers to help make judgement calls.

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