February 18, 2003
Biological Journals Start Withholding Dangerous Information

In a sign of the times the American Society for Microbiology has instituted a system for review of research articles that contain potentially dangerous information.

As a publisher of 11 peer-reviewed journals in the microbiological sciences, the ASM is on the front lines in dealing with publication of information that could be misused, Atlas pointed out. For this reason, the ASM Publication Board has adopted policies and procedures for dealing with any manuscript that may describe misuse of microbiology or of information derived from microbiology. Reviewers alert editors, who then alerts the Editor in Chief. The Editor in Chief contacts the Chair of the ASM Publications Board, and the entire board may be involved in the disposition of the manuscript.

ASM publication policy also requires that research articles must contain sufficient detail to permit the work to be repeated by others, and authors must agree to supply materials in accordance with laws and regulations governing the shipment, transfer, possession, and use of biological materials and that such supply be for legitimate research needs.

During the period 2001-2002, 14,000 manuscripts were submitted to the ASM journals. Of these, 224 dealt with select agents. Of these, 90 were rejected—57 with non-US authors. There were 134 accepted—58 with non-US authors. Among these, 2 (<0.015%) elicited elevated concern. Each was considered by the entire Publications Board and they are to be published with modification, Atlas reported.

While this sort of measure will provide some benefit the real problem is that as technology advances it becomes easier to manipulate matter into whatever form is desired. Most of the technological advances that will make it easier to develop biological weapons will not be advances made specifically in order to make nasty pathogens. Advances that enhance general abilities to study and manipulate biological materials will make it easier to make bioweapons.

Update: The rules for when ASM journals will withhold information are less strong than the statement makes them appear. The rule seems to refer to misuse of microbiology by the actual researcher.

Ask ALL reviewers to advise the Editor, by use of the Confidential Comments section of the review form and the appropriate check-off box when it becomes available, if, in their opinion, the manuscript under review describes misuses of microbiology or of information derived from microbiology.

If a researcher has legitimate reasons to study dangerous pathogens and isn't trying to make a bioterror weapon then it doesn't sound like this rule would be invoked to possibly restrict a paper from being published even if the paper contained information directly applicable to the manufacture of bioweapons. A researcher could, for instance, describe which variations of some viral gene make that virus more or less virulent. There are certainly legitimate reasons for wanting to acquire that type of information. But that information could be easily misused by someone else who otherwise would not be able to easily figure it out.

The vast bulk of all researchers are not trying to misuse microbiological research techniques. But they are discovering information that is useful for those who do wish to use biological science to harm others.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 February 18 12:03 PM  Dangers Tech General

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