Publishing Controversial Research

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Science  06 Nov 1998:
Vol. 282, Issue 5391, pp. 1045
DOI: 10.1126/science.282.5391.1045

Even the most fundamental research can be a double-edged sword—on one hand possessing the potential for immense human benefit, and on the other creating ethical dilemmas for those who choose to fund such work. In today's rapid reporting environment, the public is often sensitized to the possible ethical implications of some early research results long before the data have been subjected to rigorous peer review. For example, in the early 1990s there was great enthusiasm about the potential benefits of human embryonic stem cell lines, yet there was little compelling evidence that such lines could even be created. Just the thought of research on human embryonic tissue stirred such intense debate in the United States that federal funding for such research was prohibited. Consequently, investigators who believed in the potential benefits of such work turned to other funding sources, often private and proprietary, to fill the gap.

A paper in this issue of Science (p. 1145) and one in the upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report early results of nonfederally funded stem cell research. Using different techniques, two research groups have successfully cultured human embryonic stem cells, creating a resource that could potentially lead to tissue replacement treatments for many devastating and currently fatal diseases. The embryonic stem cells described in the Science report were derived from donated in vitro fertilization material, an ethically controversial source that could compromise or taint whatever benefits they might eventually offer. These early research results have passed peer review and are now available for public scrutiny [see also the Perspective (p. 1061) and News story (p. 1014) in this issue]

Is our decision to publish this work harmful? Should journals draw a moral line in the sand? Science believes that the answer to these questions is no. International journals cannot judge data as unsuitable for publication because of decisions by agencies that regulate and fund research. Although voluntary moratoriums by scientific communities may allow politicians and the public to assess real and perceived dangers before regulatory decisions are made,* the international political community is rarely unified in its approach to the regulation of controversial research. Because Science receives submissions from around the world, we must look for global selection criteria. For this reason, we only publish papers containing compelling results that have passed peer review and are in compliance with the Helsinki accords on human rights and with other safeguards for responsible publication.

Science believes that publication of ethically controversial research can constructively catalyze public debate and can play a positive role in maintaining an open atmosphere for dissemination and discussion. The open airing of multiple viewpoints can lead to a scientific policy that addresses the concerns of all constituencies. By encouraging the publication of valid research regardless of its qualification for public funding, journals can keep the public and body politic informed about research progress. Armed with factual knowledge, subsequent debates can lead to equally informed and scientifically based decisions regarding the steps needed to ensure scientific quality, public safety, and ethical integrity.

In the case of these papers, complex intellectual, medical and economic issues have intertwined successfully. The economic goals of private funding sources did not prevent this research from becoming available for public scrutiny. One can imagine future scenarios where this might not be the case. If private funding became tight, the ensuing research could become so constrained that it never receives scientific verification by peer review, publication, and repetition. Such potentially beneficial research would proceed without public scrutiny, and thus would fail to establish the reality of the perceived benefits and risks. For these reasons, we believe that it is time to reexamine the U.S. policy on embryonic research. In the meantime, Science will continue to publish research that can legally be performed even if it cannot be funded by a country's granting agencies. Restricting the publication opportunities of those involved in ethically controversial research is not in the public's best interest. Peer review with public purview is the only choice we have.

  • * P. Berg and M. Singer, Science 282, 413 (1998)

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