Scientific Publicity and the Dilemmas of Publication

There’s a short interview with David Nichols in last week’s New Scientist in which he talks about his place in the history of the production of “legal highs”.

The backstory is that he was doing work on MDMA (ecstasy) with half an eye on using it in the treatment of psychiatric and neurological conditions.  But when it became clear that MDMA was going to be proscribed, he turned his attention to MDMA-like compounds – compounds that have since found their way into the production of legal highs.  Using them in this way is, he says,

completely irresponsible. These substances have only been tested in rats in a few doses. In the long term they might cause cancers, or liver or cardiovascular damage. We just have no idea.

And, of course, online publication of results means that it’s very easy for them to be searched and disseminated.  So there’s a problem: good science depends on publishing results for criticism; but that publication means that you can’t control the ends to which those results are put.  And this gives researchers a headache: do they publish and wash their hands of what others do with their work, or not publish and therefore risk marginalisation (and their jobs), or do they just ignore certain areas of research?  For Nichols,

There was one case in which I decided not to work on a molecule: I thought it looked potentially interesting, but probably also very toxic, and cheap and easy to make.

But he comes down in the end on the side of publishing; he says that, on balance, people should still publish what they find.

But I can see why the problem exists and persists; and it’s not a million miles from one flagged by Tom Douglas and Julian Savulescu in a recent JME paper on synthetic biology.  Nor is it unrelated to recent worries expressed by certain financial institutions about the publication in an MPhil thesis of details of how to hack chip-and-pin payment cards.  As it happens, I don’t share Tom and Julian’s worries in respect of synbio, and I’m slightly surprised that the banking security people aren’t grateful to Cambridge for pointing out a weakness in their systems to them rather than whining to the University’s PR (PR, ffs!) department.  The problem of the safety of unregulated legal highs would never have arisen if disco-biscuits had never been made illegal.

But the underlying question remains: if there is some technology t or discovery d the public dissemination of the details of which is potentially dangerous, then how should we deal with t and d?  Is there a line to be drawn concerning what is and what isn’t apt to be published – and is it congruent with a line marking what is and isn’t apt to be researched to begin with?  That, I think, was at the heart of Tom and Julian’s question; but I’m not sure how to begin to answer it.

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