WIRED: “Making Science More Open is Good for Research—but Bad for Security”
Increasingly journals have published research that’s free for anyone to read, and scientists have shared their data among each other. The open science movement has also entailed the rise of preprint servers: repositories where scientists can post manuscripts before they go through a rigorous review by other researchers and are published in journals. No longer do scientists have to wade through the slog of the peer-review process before their research is widely available: They can submit a paper on bioRxiv and have it appear online the next day.
But a new paper in the journal PLoS Biology argues that, while the swell of the open science movement is on the whole a good thing, it isn’t without risks.
During the pandemic, the need for preprint servers was thrown into sharp relief—crucial research could be disseminated far more quickly than the traditionally sluggish journal route. But with that, it also means that “more people than ever know now how to synthesize viruses in laboratories,” says Jonas Sandbrink, a biosecurity researcher at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and the other coauthor of the paper.
In their paper, Smith and Sandbrink make recommendations to safeguard against potential biosecurity risks. For instance, when researchers post data and code in repositories, they could be required to make a declaration that that data isn’t risky—though they acknowledge that this requires a level of honesty one wouldn’t expect from bad actors. But it is an easy step that could be implemented right away.
And it would be naive to pretend that a paywall or journal subscription is what impedes nefarious actors. “People who want to do harm will probably do harm,” says Gabrielle Samuel, a social scientist at King’s College London whose research explores the ethical implications of big data and AI. “Even if we have really good governance processes in place, that doesn’t mean that misuse won’t happen. All we can do is try to mitigate it.”
Direct to Full Text Journal Article Discussed in WIRED Article
by: James Andrew Smith
University of Oxford
Jonas B. Sandbrink
University of Oxford
Source: PLOS Bio (April 14, 2022)
The risk of accidental or deliberate misuse of biological research is increasing as biotechnology advances. As open science becomes widespread, we must consider its impact on those risks and develop solutions that ensure security while facilitating scientific progress. Here, we examine the interaction between open science practices and biosecurity and biosafety to identify risks and opportunities for risk mitigation. Increasing the availability of computational tools, datasets, and protocols could increase risks from research with misuse potential.
For instance, in the context of viral engineering, open code, data, and materials may increase the risk of release of enhanced pathogens. For this dangerous subset of research, both open science and biosecurity goals may be achieved by using access-controlled repositories or application programming interfaces. While preprints accelerate dissemination of findings, their increased use could challenge strategies for risk mitigation at the publication stage. This highlights the importance of oversight earlier in the research lifecycle. Preregistration of research, a practice promoted by the open science community, provides an opportunity for achieving biosecurity risk assessment at the conception of research. Open science and biosecurity experts have an important role to play in enabling responsible research with maximal societal benefit.
About Gary Price
Gary Price (email@example.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.