Policy on Scientific Publication, Security and Censorship

SGM Council considered its policy on scientific publication, security and censorship at its meeting on 21 February 2003, in the light of recent concerns about potential use of micro-organisms and toxins for bioterrorism. Opinions amongst other learned societies and publishers tended to be polarized between those who felt that journals should have some editorial guidelines to prevent the publication of material of potential use by terrorists and those who wished to resist any form of censorship and restriction of research. Council agreed to prepare a written policy on this issue, which was then circulated for comment. The final version was approved at the Council meeting on 2 May.

  1. Scientific publication is important for the communication of ideas and findings, for the improvement of human, animal and plant health, and safeguarding of the environment.
  2. The integrity of the process of publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals must be protected. Articles must be published in sufficient detail to permit the experiments to be repeated in other laboratories, as a means of independent verification and a basis for further advances.
  3. There is already a great amount of information in the public domain, such as the sequences of the genomes of many pathogens, which could conceivably be exploited by a determined bioterrorist. The same information has also been exploited for public benefits, including biodefence and health protection. The benefits greatly outweigh the potential dangers.
  4. SGM Council is against any blanket or external censorship of scientific publication in subject areas such as microbiology, as this would be a barrier to scientific progress. Furthermore, the potential benefits or dangers from a new discovery are not always possible to predict.
  5. Nevertheless, it is responsible to recognize that in rare cases, papers submitted for publication might raise particular concerns that the methods or results could have possible use in bioterrorism.
  6. In consequence, authors, editors, referees and publishers should be prepared to consider safety and security issues of presentation and publication, if it appeared that an aspect of a paper might be readily exploited to enhance the capacity for bioterrorism. The final decision should be the responsibility of the Editor-in-Chief of the journal concerned, advised by its Editorial Board. SGM Council should keep its policy and processes for implementing it under review.

The overall reasoning in paragraphs 1 to 6 also applies to any proposals for further restriction and regulation of experimental work with pathogens and toxins, and of international scientific collaborations. Control of such matters rests with universities and research institutes, etc., and the relevant regulatory authorities, rather than with SGM Council. However, the point is made on behalf of microbiology as a science and profession, that excessive regulation could have negative consequences.