Publication visibility of sensitive public health data: When scientists Bury their results

Science and Engineering Ethics 10 (4):597-613 (2004)
What happens when the scientific tradition of openness clashes with potential societal risks? The work of American toxic-exposure epidemiologists can attract media coverage and lead the public to change health practices, initiate lawsuits, or take other steps a study’s authors might consider unwarranted. This paper, reporting data from 61 semi-structured interviews with U.S. toxic-exposure epidemiologists, examines whether such possibilities shaped epidemiologists’ selection of journals for potentially sensitive papers. Respondents manifested strong support for the norm of scientific openness, but a significant minority had or would/might, given the right circumstances, publish sensitive data in less visible journals, so as to prevent unwanted media or public attention. Often, even those advocating such limited “burial” upheld openness, claiming that less visible publication allowed them to avoid totally withholding the data from publication. However, 15% of the sample had or would, for the most sensitive types of data, withhold publication altogether. Rather than respondents explaining their actions in terms of an expected split between “pure science” and “social advocacy” models, even those publishing in the more visible journals often described their actions in terms of their “responsibility”. Several practical limitations (particularly involving broader access to scientific literature via the Internet) of the strategy of burial are discussed, and some recommendations are offered for scientists, the media, and the public.
Keywords publication  scientist  responsibility  ethics  epidemiology
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DOI 10.1007/s11948-004-0041-5
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