You may be familiar with the controversy over recent research conducted on H5N1 influenza. If you follow science news, it’s been hard to miss. Two papers, both of which report on the potential for H5N1 to become transmissible between experimental mammals, set off an international flurry over potential biosecurity concerns late last year. After months of heated meetings, contradictory recommendations from advisory groups, and more recent threats over export control laws, the fiery rhetoric seems to be finally cooling down.
The studies that started the debate, submitted by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus MS and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of UW-Madison, were flagged by the journals Science and Nature as having the potential for “Dual Use” – research that can potentially be used for both legitimate or ill intended means – and were remanded by the journals to a US governmental biosecurity advisory board called the NSABB. It’s not often that science journals find themselves in the position of contacting a governmental body for this kind of advice, and it begs the hard question of where responsibility should fall for decisions relating to whether to publish controversial papers, and under what restrictions. Particularly, what role should science publishers play? This was also new ground for the NSABB because it was created to provide advice on policies relating to dual use research as opposed to dictating the scientific content of specific manuscripts after scientific peer review. Thus, controversy was generated when the NSABB recommended for the first time to redact key methodological details and results from the two papers, which were judged to potentially enable duplication “by those who would seek to do harm”.
The idea of redaction- trying to keep certain results secret by only sharing them with the “most qualified” scientists- presents editors of scientific journals with a genuine dilemma. Given the international attention that befell Science and Nature, it’s certainly a question that has created considerable debate amongst scientific publishers. Here at PLoS, it raises both philosophical questions in addition to the obvious practical ones. As an Open Access publisher, PLoS is committed to the widespread dissemination of research while also being sensitive to issues of publication ethics and public safety. From our perspective, it’s difficult to understand how selective redaction of data, which would be shared amongst only a select few, could be a viable option within the context of either Open Access or the strictures of freedom of information.
Ultimately the redaction idea was scrapped and the NSABB decided to recommend publication in full, following on a similar decision from an advisory body constituted by the World Health Organization. However, Science found itself in the middle of the fray once more in April when the Dutch government moved to block Fouchier from publishing his work by invoking laws intended to prevent the export of Dual Use technology. Fouchier protested the need for an export control permit and considered resubmitting to Science without one. Although Fouchier could have faced up to six years in jail if he had followed through and the Dutch government had elected to prosecute the case, Science wasn’t legally obligated to withhold publication at all. This put the journal in a delicate spot, pitted in the middle of an author and his government. In the end, Fouchier agreed to apply for his permit and it was granted. We can expect to see his H5N1 paper appear soon, and Kawaoka’s related study has just been published.
Since both studies are being published in full it might seem like we’re back where we started, but that’s not the case. It’s clear that a new precedent has emerged. At the end of March the Obama administration announced new oversight on funding research with the potential for Dual Use, focusing on a list of fifteen Select Agents and certain categories of experiments. The US government hasn’t previously involved itself in mandating Dual Use policies to this extent, and exactly how this new policy develops will be of considerable interest to both scientists and publishers alike. For now, it means that more of the burden will be placed on federal agencies to determine what research should be funded and how it should be regulated.
The role that science journals will have in this unfolding process is still evolving. To provide guidance to all PLoS journals, we have formed an internal advisory committee to help navigate these tough decisions. We will also soon be instating a related Dual Use policy to assist in the evaluation and processing of manuscripts that raise the kinds of concerns that the two H5N1 manuscripts did at Science and Nature. Our philosophy is that we will continue to publish the highest quality science, using the top standards of peer review, while being sensitive to the evolving standards of what is considered Dual Use science that could potentially be dangerous to public health. We welcome continued discussions with the scientific community, regulatory bodies, and scientific publishers to help us achieve a balanced solution to this vexing issue.
Cory Mann is the Publications Manager for PLoS Pathogens. He would like to thank PLoS Pathogens Deputy Editor Grant McFadden for providing editorial input on this post.