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Denver 2003 Sunday, 16 February, 2003, 03:07 GMT
Bioterror fears muzzle open science
Image, BBC
Black, BBC

A group of leading scientific journals has announced measures aimed at restricting the publication of research which could be used by bioterrorists.

In a joint statement, the journals' editors say it is crucial that concerns over terrorism do not affect the release of valuable medical research.

But they say they recognise there may be occasions when new research data should be withheld from publication because it could be abused.

The statement was released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Denver.

Balancing act

The statement, signed by 32 editors of scientific journals, is a response to the events of 11 September, 2001, and the anthrax letters that followed.

In the United States especially, there have been calls from some politicians for draconian restrictions on research; but the editors, including Ronald Atlas, President of the American Society of Microbiology, believe this would create other, perhaps bigger problems for society.

"We work towards public health and if we slow down the pace of our research, people will die.

"On the other hand, we are revealing the potential targets by which terrorists could attack us. So it's a very careful balancing act; it's one we absolutely have to get right."

Special board

All research submitted to journals is reviewed for scientific accuracy before it is published.

What the journals are now doing is amending this process to include an assessment of the security implications of publication. This could lead to part or all of a paper being withheld.

The editors write in their statement: "We recognise that on occasion 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"Under such circumstances, the paper should be modified, or not be published."

Mr Atlas said two papers from the 11 journals produced by the American Society of Microbiology had been modified in this way.

The prestigious journal Science, which is published by the AAAS, has set up a special board to review the security implications of papers that come its way.

Everyone involved acknowledges that publication restraint is only part of the answer - there is nothing to stop scientists simply posting their research on the internet, for example.

But as one editor put it here, it marks a philosophical change for science, the end of an age of innocence.

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 ON THIS STORY
Richard Black reports
"As one editor put it, this marks the end of an age of innocence"
Denver, BBC

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