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The Fear of the Known

Publishing the genetic sequence of a transmissible influenza virus might be scary, but harder decisions are yet to come

Robert L. Dorit

Conference Gossip, Published Facts

Seen from the outside, the world of professional science appears regimented and controlled. Experiments are carried out, hypotheses tested, manuscripts submitted and peer reviewed, results reproduced and confirmed. This stately flow of knowledge is certainly an important part of what we do. But coupled to it is a much more freewheeling enterprise: We converse in the elevator, send e-mails, engage in gossip around the espresso machine. While scientists can be discreet and at times secretive, we do love to talk about each other’s work. And the social structure of grant writing, conferences, posters, manuscripts, blogs and social networks means that experiments are described and discussed before, during and after they are carried out. Finally, training in science operates much like a medieval guild: Students and postdocs are mentored by one or a few individuals, and there are not many secrets in a lab.

These social trends lead directly to an inescapable conclusion: The rationale, methods and conclusions of the ferret transmissibility experiments have already been seen, heard or discussed by many individuals. While preventing publication of the manuscript would certainly limit the number of people acquainted with the results (or, more precisely, limit the rate of spread of the information), knowledge of this sort, particularly in the age of the Internet, is unlikely to be contained. Nor should it be. In the end, with very few exceptions (work that is classified from its very inception, for instance) transparency and the flow of information are central to the self-correcting nature of the scientific enterprise.

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