In December, in an unprecedented move, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) intervened in the publication of two research articles on work to enhance the transmission of bird flu in mammals.
"Currently, H5N1 avian influenza virus — the strain commonly referred to as 'bird flu' — rarely infects humans and does not spread easily from person to person. However, many scientists and public health officials are concerned that the virus could evolve in nature into a form that is transmissible among humans — an event that could potentially make this deadly virus an extremely serious global public health threat. Thus research on factors that can affect the transmissibility of the H5N1 virus is critically important to international efforts to prepare and prevent threats to public health," says an HHS press statement.
"While the public health benefits of such research can be important, certain information obtained through such studies has the potential to be misused for harmful purposes. The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) — an independent expert committee that advises the Department of Health and Human Services and other Federal departments and agencies on matters of biosecurity — completed a review of two unpublished manuscripts describing NIH [National Institutes of Health]-funded research on the transmissibility of H5N1….
"Following its review, the NSABB decided to recommend that HHS ask the authors of the reports and the editors of the journals that were considering publishing the reports to make changes in the manuscripts. Due to the importance of the findings to the public health and research communities, the NSABB recommended that the general conclusions highlighting the novel outcome be published, but that the manuscripts not include the methodological and other details that could enable replication of the experiments by those who would seek to do harm," adds the statement.
The editors of the two journals, Nature and Science, have indicated willingness to comply with the non-binding HHS request.
As an editor, I view with concern any attempt by government to influence what is published. Here, though, the intervention seems justified. I'm certainly more confident in that because scientific experts on an advisory board, rather than bureaucrats, prompted the move. I expect that such interference will remain rare and limited to papers based on government-funded research.
Government may pose a more-far-reaching threat to many research journals. "Innovation and Research Strategy for Growth," a report presented to the UK Parliament in December, takes a stance that challenges the business model of most academic journals — i.e., charging a hefty subscription price to a limited, specialized audience.
"The Government, in line with our overarching commitment to transparency and open data, is committed to ensuring that publicly-funded research should be accessible free of charge. Free and open access to taxpayer-funded research offers significant social and economic benefits by spreading knowledge, raising the prestige of UK research and encouraging technology transfer. At the moment, such research is often difficult to find and expensive to access. This can defeat the original purpose of taxpayer-funded academic research and limits understanding and innovation. We have already committed… to facilitate data mining of published research. This could have substantial benefits, for example in tackling diseases. But we need to go much further if, as a nation, we are to gain the full potential benefits of publicly-funded research," the report stresses.
"Government will work with partners, including the publishing industry, to achieve free access to publicly-funded research as soon as possible and will set an example itself…"
In an interview in The Guardian, Science Minister David Willetts notes: "…We want to move to open access, but in a way that ensures that peer review and publishing continues as a function. It needs to be paid for somehow. One of the clear options is to shift to a system from [one in] which university libraries pay for journals to one in which the academics pay to publish. But then you need to shift the funding so the academics could afford to pay to publish."
If the UK initiative takes hold and other governments adopt a similar approach, research journals face serious adjustments and topsy-turvy finances. But open access may be worth the price.
MARK ROSENZWEIG is Chemical Processing's Editor in Chief. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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