Restrictions on Peer Review and the Flow of Scientific Information

In some cases, scientific results cannot be freely disseminated because doing so might pose risks to commercial interests, national security, human health, or other objectives. For example, a company may choose not to publish internally conducted research that could give it an edge in the marketplace. Or a government or university-based laboratory may not be able to publish studies involving pathogens that could be used as biological weapons or mathematical results related to cryptography. These and similar restrictions on publications are controversial and (widely) debated.

Researchers working under such conditions may need to find alternate ways of exposing their work to professional scrutiny. For example, internal reviewers or properly structured visiting committees can examine proprietary or classified research while maintaining confidentiality.

The publication of results from fundamental scientific research has generally not been restricted in the United States unless those results are deemed so critical to national security that they are classified. The most recent episodes stem from the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the subsequent anthrax incidents in Washington in 2001. The U.S. government adopted or considered measures to restrict access to an expanded range of information or materials, to increase the monitoring of foreign students and researchers, and to screen some publications for “sensitive information.” All of these steps reduce the traditional openness of scientific research and must continually be carefully weighed against the national security benefits they might produce.

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