Jelena Nedjic

Postdoctoral Fellow, Ludwig Maximilians University Munich

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To publish or not to publish?

Open access to scientific findings are the must. Or so do we think.
What happens in case of discoveries that have potential to be used as a bio-weapon? Should all information be available to anyone who is willing to pay the price? What are the consequences? How we- the community at large- not only TEDies- should react? The researchers from Netherlands and Wisconsin came up to potentially deadly bio-weapon, the air-born bird-flu virus...it has potential to kill millions...should information about its synthesis be available? Should we be angry at the government for trying to limit the accessibility to information or should we applaud it? Where is the point at which scientific freedom ends?

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    Dec 28 2011: Something learned cannot be unlearned anymore.
    We can't really regulate and control the use of anything. There always is another place where it can be done and will be done.
    The only thing possible is to educate and form people into responsible adults.
    Some disasters have happened and others will happen.
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    Dec 28 2011: A great question. I think there should be a global database with all scientific papers, theses, and dissertations ever published -- in all languages, about all possible topics -- but that there should be different access levels and restrictions connected to potentially dangerous material like the viruses. Like for example being obliged to fill in a request form with a detailed description of why you want to have access to certain articles and how they would be significant for your work. Being able to track access requests like that may not completely prevent abuse, but it could probably limit it. I don't think we should applaud any government for their failure in supporting openness in scientific communication. They should work together on a global database and have a little more confidence in scientists.
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      Dec 28 2011: Hmmm, interesting proposal. However, when I think about the number of scientific journals and the number of ways the discoveries ( and not only viruses) can be used as a potential bio-weapon, I wonder if centralized system would be possible. It is not easy to set the rules, BUT we should all think about it and voice our opinions. Potential danger= access to description, but not full information. AND! who gets the access to the full information! Government of the country where the discovery was made?!? Clearly, it is not for the benefit of the world to have a country that posses such a deadly weapon. Human kind has unfortunately demonstrated its own capability to "DO BAD" with scientific discoveries.
  • Jan 2 2012: Every form of censorship, be it in mass media or research works, has to do with a defeciency of trust amongst the parties involved. This may happen because while we know the contents of the information we have, we usually don't have the slightest idea about the person or party receiving that information, their response, how they understand it and how they will use it and for what purpose. One golden rule we always follow is, the higher the significance or importance of the info the greater the importance of research about the person or party receiving it. Every information is open but not all informations are accessible. And it should stay that way until we have a clear knowledge about 'who' receives it.
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    Dec 28 2011: Very interesting question. I held my breath a few days ago when I read an article about the scientists being urged or pressured (or both) to withhold information about the strain. I haven't found an answer to this question and thank god, I'm not responsible for this decision.
    But two arguments for publishing the study, nevertheless have come into my mind.
    For one, the article I read about the whole thing said that there was prior exposure of the material (or big parts of it) at conferences. That means possible bioterrorists allready could have or procure most / all of the info.
    Withholding the information would on the other hand mean that the scientific community can't work together on finding an antidote for lack of information. Or at least they would first have to dig.
    If you ask me personally, I'd rather have the entire international science community know that there might be a problem, and how it would look like - to facilitate early discovery / to give more heads a chance to work on a solution - than to withold the information from potential terrorists.
    At first I've asked myself what the sense of this discovery was in the first place - I guess the answer is: the mutation can occur spontaniously in the wild - we might preemptively find a cure for it. Weird thinking but ok - they said "A" - and if we agree of thei initial drive or not isn't important - now someone has to say "B" in finding a vaccine or something.
  • Dec 28 2011: This information just raised my anxiety level, not to publish.
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    Dec 28 2011: Hi Jelena,
    You have brought in a interesting topic. This is information age and the informaiton should be free flowing. The more the information is conceald the more the anxiety levels are aroused and there are chances of it giving rise to sort of rumours.

    The more the Government trying to suppress it, would lead to a parallel process of more inqusitiveness that would create in the particular circle which would otherwise not crave for the information. Government policies of concealeing facts is just like a story of lock and key where the government would make a bigger lock forgetting the fact that there is some one who will attempt and make a key in opening the lock
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    Dec 28 2011: Suppressed until a cure is found, then publish the bio-weapon along with the antidote. (Not that it'll ever happen) but the simultaneous publication of a sickness and a cure might decrease the likelihood of it being weaponized.
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    Jan 27 2012: Knowledge and truth are powerful. A power few can handle...
  • Jan 1 2012: The rapid increase in the availability of information and technology is creating a new paradigm that is forcing governments to restrict freedoms for safety purposes. We have always been taught that freedom of speech is one of the checks and balances that is necessary to the preservation of a democratic society, does this principle stand on its own in the accelerating information age?

    It is greed that pushes us beyond an inclusive and sustainable future. Fear of losing what we have to others feeds this greed and also drives mutually assured destruction. We do not trust each other, so we must create something bigger and more powerful or risk losing what we have. Only when the masses reengage in public debate will we be able to find real solutions to greed, sustainability, and the fear that drives these technological dangers.

    How then do we maintain our freedom and shape our future? Technology has distracted the masses, the media is watered down, The act of public demonstration and our judicial systems are reactionary forces. Reactionary forces are too slow, the next problem rears its head before change can set hold, momentum is lost, and interest wanes. We must therefore be proactive in our communities and especially prepare our youth to answer these hard questions. Have our children ever heard a discussion on what it means to be a good global citizen? How many young adults can explain the opportunities and dangers of topics such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, accelerating computer science? Until we as local, national, and international communities begin to collaborate on a much grander scale, questions such as ' to publish or not to publish?' will soon be answered by governments for us. Can we blame them if the public is no longer willing to participate in debating it's own future?
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    Jan 1 2012: I can recommend a very good theater play / book on the subject - Friedrich Dürrenmatt's "The Physicists".

    The play deals with questions of scientific ethics and mankind's ability to handle its intellectual responsibilities and ends with the consequence that anything that has been thought of cannot be undone so basically that once you as a researcher came up with an idea, this idea will surely become reality one day even if you do not wish this to happen.

    I don't want to spoil any details because it's a really good play.

    Dürrenmatt concluded that such dangerous discoveries cannot be "made undone" by simply hiding them from public view, the only way to reach a solution is if worldwide all researchers work together.
  • Dec 31 2011: What impacts do you think the publications of bibles have had?
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    Dec 30 2011: I don't think a general rule can be made. It's necessary to use common sense in addition to legal judgement. It's easy to imaging discoveries or inventions that could be very harmful if they were generally published. And a lot of research is proprietary, paid for and carried out by corporations, who have a right to keep their results to themselves. A requirement to publish such results would lead to less research.

    I very much support making public all research or other reports that are paid for by the taxpayers, except that which must be held confidential for security reasons. Today, most scientific research done with public funds is published only in professional journals, and can only be accessed through expensive subscriptions or through academic libraries. The government should provide a web site where all such research is searchable without cost by the public.
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    Dec 30 2011: I have had the good fortune to be capable of searching through published academic and scientific research, looking for insights and evidence to help my own work. It's not easy... it takes forever... I don't understand half of it and I don't feel it is always a useful endeavour. Sometimes, publishing is as good a way to lose something as to reveal it. Media publication is what gets things noticed and, by then the knowledge will have been subverted enough to barely resemble the original work. Should people take other peoples' work and use it to kill, maim, destroy, ruin other other people? NO! But most do in some way or another... as some people also use it to benefit, heal, enhance, connect those other others. So no clear solutions here I'm afraid.. but I enjoyed the chance to think about it! Thanks
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      Dec 31 2011: Thank you for bringing such interesting points. I could not agree more with you about the "materials and methods section" of scientific articles. That is yet another issue worth discussing. I am under the impression that all those issues should be discussed over and over again, until something is really done at the level of the system that can improve all the things that need to be improved in scientific research. Enjoyed the chance to voice my opinion about it. Thanks.
  • Dec 29 2011: The question is: how could we stop researching those biodestrucitve weapons, once we had knowledgment about it?
  • Dec 29 2011: An interesting question.

    The reverse might also work for us. If the wrong people discovered the strain and chose to keep it confidential, how do we even know that it exist? The flow of Information is a dynamic process and, don't worry, by the time it reaches the wrong hands the information will be as mutated as the strain itself. Curbing and actively monitoring the flow of resources which go into making these kind of hazardous entities ,starting from human resource, would be a good thing rather than witholding information.
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    Dec 28 2011: That the Netherlands and Wisconsin are co-developers in a WMD seems strange however, all things are possible. What would be the purpose of such a weapon? I have not heard of the Netherlands seeking world power or has Wisconsin sought world dominance. This is the first I have heard of this weapon. If Wisconsin had this power I am sure that the citizens and the Federal Government would have demanded its removal. I also would think that the UN would have addressed this. Since it a airborn weapon there is no control once it is released therefore endangering the countries where the air takes it. However, your question is should the info (if it exists) be released? No. It serves no purpose to release bad science. There are countries who are less responsible and are ruled by religious zelots who follow strict and harsh writings that all who do not believe should die. Would you release data to such a country so ruled? If the information is released then the power that it represents is void and all research is also void. Along with that the Netherlands and Wisconsin would be put on the UN naughty list and scorned by the world.
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      Dec 28 2011: Dear Robert,
      it is scientific research, not the intentional development of bio-weapon-it contributes to understanding of influenza- it is the new strain of H5N1 that is air-born and can be spread more easily. The study was performed at the Erasmus of Rotterdam and University of Wisconsin. I don't think it is a " bad science", I just think it might has potential to be used to harm the society at large. But even if the publication of methodology used is not allowed, can we really absolutely control the availability of that information?
    • Dec 30 2011: What is bad science? Science that harms people? Knowledge's function highly depends on what people use it for. If there is information out there that can help in making some deadly virus, you shouldn't be scared of its existence; be scared of people who know how to use it. There's a lot of information out there that can destroy the world and can help it too. But there are fewer people who actually know how to use it. Besides, I believe people who know how to use a specific type of knowledge will find access to it one way or another whether government releases it or not.
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    Dec 28 2011: Hi Jelena,

    It was intriguing to read your question ... even more so to answer it!
    As far as access to data is concerned I believe it's pretty easily available even without the Internet. Anyone can buy anything these days with enough money! The point is that scientific evolution can't be stopped as well as human evolution. I hope that we'll evolve into responsible and humane creatures but that's rather doubtful having in mind the circumstances of today's world!

    Secondly, I believe that publishing is good no matter if it's scientific or not. I like the idea of more people feeling somehow connected to each other through their interests and hobbies ... yes, even academic ones! That's why I consider publishing a good thing! But what I would ask for is copyright protection as anyone can claim credit for the writing and that's no good!
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    Dec 28 2011: That is the question.
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    Dec 28 2011: There are two very divergent communities here. The scientific community who seek knowledge and answers to questions and possibilities. The scientific community is open and not adverse to consulting and comparing notes. This is mostly done by Medical Doctors.

    The second community is industrial, military, political community. The results of research have a specific use and application that will favor the holder of the information. The researchers of this community are sworn to not devulge the results or even the area of research to anyone but the employeer.

    To gain favor most companies want employees to publish. Being published is a major part of a resume and a consideration for raises. However, papers should be ran through the company to ensure it does not violate company policy. This is only important if you want to keep your job or ever work in the field again.

    Your question is one of ethics for the employee. Money not being the major factor which community do you want to work for. Can you live with the knowledge that you devised a bomb capable of killing millions. Would you be happy knowing your research lead to a cure which saved millions.
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      Dec 28 2011: Sure, Robert. I agree. It is the question of ethics for the employee. But, the discovery was made, it is there...what do we do with it when the bomb capable of killing millions is sitting in the lab. Should the info about its synthesis be released?
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        Jan 5 2012: In response to "Should the info about its synthesis be released?"
        Yes. Because every weapon produces a defensive response. If one lab can discover a weapon, so can others. The worst or best effects of any weapon is when it is used against an unprepared opponent. The publication of a danger is a stimulus to the response. There are probably many secret labs developing terrible weapons. As an outsider, I can only hope that there are other labs publishing similar results that stimulate responses to the many possible threats that are being created in secret.
        To advocate non publication is to advocate secrecy. We already have more of that than is safe for the continuance of the human race or at least our high tech civilization. Terrorists already have access to a multiplicity of radioactive or biological weapons. More knowledge of possible dangers in the society as a whole is the only way to avert surprise, panic, and erroneous behaviors based on ignorance.