Brussels, 03 Mar 2003
In response to the events surrounding 11 September, leading scientific journals have announced measures to prevent published research falling into the wrong hands.
In a joint statement, 32 editors from leading scientific journals say there may be occasions when new research findings should be held back from publication if the data poses a risk of being abused by bioterrorists. This statement was made at the yearly meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) held in Denver, USA.
Calls by US officials for hard-line restrictions on scientific publications since the events of 11 September and ensuing anthrax letter scare have largely been resisted until now. But, in a further statement to go with the new measures, the editors wanted to reassure scientists and freedom of speech advocates that, according to the BBC News online, "it is crucial that concerns over terrorism do not affect the release of valuable medical research".
It will be up to the scientific journal's review panel to include as part of its validation process a special assessment of the security implications of publication. This could lead to part or all of a paper being withheld.
Despite certain weaknesses in this approach (e.g. it can not prevent self-publication of research via the Internet), it represents a wind change for science. One that - as an editor at the AAAS meeting remarked - signifies the end of innocence.
In an about face, these new measures also challenge earlier AAAS statements on the subject of research integrity. Part of its 1997 statement reads: "In all areas of scientific endeavor, full and open communication is critical to the achievement of research and educational excellence... The hallmark of every scientific investigation is the full and open communication of all data among those engaged in the research."
The final judgement on whether scientific journals should hold back research perhaps rests on the definition of what is in the best interests of science and society, and what is the best way to ensure scientific advancement.
Source:: American Association for Advancement of Science, BBC News online