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Publish and Perish (video)
February 20, 2003

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Interviewees: Ronald Atlas, President, American Society for Microbiology; and Eckard Wimmer, SUNY at Stony Brook.

Video is 1 min 30 sec long. Please be patient while it loads enough to start playing.

Produced by Joyce Gramza

Copyright ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage courtesy ABC News and James Hogle

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"Publish or perish" is the rule in science. But as Americans shopped for plastic and duct tape, biologists and scientific journal publishers said they're concerned about who might be reading their journals.

As this ScienCentral News video reports, scientists now plan to police what they publish.

Security vs. Censorship

Scientific research—and progress—depends on an international community of peers reviewing, repeating, testing and advancing upon each other's work. That is why scientists generally balk at any threat to the openness of their communications. But this week, publishers and editors of biology journals promised to police what they publish in the interest of national security.

"Since the anthrax attacks of fall 2001, there has been concern that some of the information that we produce in science could be misused by terrorists," says Ron Atlas, president of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), which publishes eleven journals.

Atlas, joined by editors of other major journals, including Science, Nature, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), announced the new policy at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) this week in Denver. The journals are also publishing the group's statement in this week's issues.

“We’re not interested in publishing dangerous information," says Atlas. "If we detect it, we’re going to try to work with authors and try to modify the manuscript. That failing, we just won’t publish the manuscript.”

The announcement comes after a workshop held by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington last month, in which scientists, journal editors and publishers met with national security officials on the issue.

"What we don't really want to see is government intervention that will have a chilling impact on science. We're not looking for a national censorship board," says Atlas. "So the question was asked. So what can we do? And the answer we've come up with is sort of a self-policing system. A system based on ethics that says we only want to work for the betterment of humankind, and not for its harm."

The tipping point

Eckard Wimmer's research was a case-study at the NAS workshop. Wimmer and his colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook wrote a now famous paper, published in the journal Science, reporting they had created live polio virus from scratch.

When the paper was published in July 2002, Wimmer says, "the reaction was overwhelming…. Many scientists, and particularly the entire public, was not prepared that somebody would put a virus together simply by chemical methods—without actually a template or an original that occurs in nature in the first place," he says. "All we needed was the information that you can get out of the Internet."

By January, that alarm had given way to discussion, and Atlas and other attendees at the NAS workshop agreed that the information was not dangerous and was correct to publish.

image: James Hogle

"For poliovirus, we're all very well protected in the first place," says Wimmer. "For other terrible viruses, evildoers can get those in nature…. They don't have to go through the rather complicated and expensive trial that we have done. An exception is smallpox virus that cannot be had easily, but that virus cannot be synthesized easily either. It is actually a very complicated virus and the experts agree that to synthesize smallpox virus right now would really be quite impossible."

"It may have been alarming to the public, but it was scientific knowledge that really was out there already," says Atlas. "A terrorist would have known that this could be done. It didn't provide a specific set of instructions. It wasn't a cookbook.”

In fact, the poliovirus research revealed a way to weaken the virus, which is important for medical research. It's that balancing act the editors are committing to. Atlas says that hampering biomedical research would put people at even greater risk, not only from natural diseases, but also from failing to develop new vaccines and anti-viral drugs against potential bioterror agents.

In another hotly-debated case study, Australian researchers engineered mousepox that was made more deadly by adding a single gene. That research was published in 2001 in an ASM journal. Atlas says it, too, would still be published under the new policy.

"It was important information," says Atlas. "Prior to the publication of that paper, I had been advising the government to put most of their resources into new vaccines. When I looked at that paper, it told me that we had to have an equal search for antivirals, and we had to have our states developing quarantine procedures if all else failed."

So what sort of information would be withheld under the new policy?

While there may not be agreement on what constitutes a "cookbook" for terrorists, Atlas thinks editors will know one if they see it.

"If I give you specific instructions on how to make an antibiotic-resistant strain of bacillus anthracis [anthrax]… if it's going to defeat a therapeutic drug, that could be in that class," says Atlas. "If I tell you how to 'weaponize' something, if I tell you how to aerosolize it so it spreads and kills more people, that's dangerous."

The scientists also agree that the only real defense against bioterrorism is more research. Wimmer welcomed President Bush's announcement in his State of the Union address of a new initiative called Project BioShield.

"Our government has put aside large quantities of funds to start a new round developing antiviral drugs and vaccines, and that's the way to go," Wimmer says. "We have to focus on developing drugs and vaccines to protect ourselves against viruses… which in turn, by the way, will be of great benefit to all of us."

by Joyce Gramza

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