The ethical dilemma of publishing an unethical study

Megan Molteni has an article in Wired discussing an old problem: What do you do with scientific information that was obtained unethically? This is an old problem that has been seen in stark forms with Nazi scientists experimenting on Jewish captives prior to and during World War II and the US government experimenting on black people for four decades in the infamous Tuskegee experiments.Molteni brings this up in the context of the genetic modification done on two human embryos using the CRISPR technology. As Molteni says:

On the one hand, you might want to learn from such a person’s work; to have a full and open dissection of everything that went wrong. Because, spoiler, there was a lot that went wrong in the case in question. But rewarding such “abhorrent” behavior, as one scientist put it, with a publication—the currency of the scientific world—would send a message that ethical rules only exist to be broken.

Scientists denounced the work with near-unanimous condemnation, citing its technical failures as well as its deep breaches of ethical (and possibly legal) lines. What’s much less certain is what should happen to the work, now that it’s been done.

But He, who made his announcement over YouTube, has so far produced no manuscript for public consumption. A paper describing this work is reportedly under peer review, and a second one about additional Crispr experiments in human embryos was rejected by an international journal over ethical and scientific concerns, STAT reported Monday morning.

During the Hong Kong summit, an audience member asked He if he would be willing to post his work to a public forum, such as the biology preprint server bioRxiv, so the scientific community could have access to the data. He said that the journal considering his manuscript had advised against posting anything to bioRxiv until the paper had passed peer review. He did not specify which journal. Nor did He return WIRED’s requests for comment. But scientists who have seen the manuscript doubt it will pass peer review any time soon, if ever.

“It was a very shoddy paper, very incomplete. What I saw wouldn’t pass any journal,” says Eric Topol, a cardiologist and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute who reviewed He’s manuscript for the Associated Press. Other scientists have also denounced the experiment as a technical failure, based on the slides He presented in Hong Kong.

He’s paper should not be published because he violated ethical norms and such actions should not be rewarded. I think that this concern about losing important information is overblown. By the time a scientific paper actually appears in print, the information has already circulated widely among people working in that area and this is especially true if the work has major impact. So most of the information about this latest experiment is now pretty much known, as can be seen by the criticisms of other scientists based on what they know about the work. And you can be sure that more information about what he actually did will leak out eventually.

Non-scientists may not realize how much information circulates informally through the scientific grapevine among those who work in closely related areas. The printed paper largely serves as a priority marker and to communicate information to people who are not that close to the field. This was true even before the internet age, when preprints of papers were routinely sent by mail to others working in the field even before the paper was accepted by a journal.

We tend to place too much importance to individuals when it comes to scientific discoveries. One of the things that non-scientists sometimes don’t realize that major ideas emerge at a time when the time is ripe for it and those ideas are circulating in the wind, until someone plucks it out of the air. So the fear of irrevocably harming the growth of knowledge is, in my opinion, exaggerated. Science would have progressed, if not in quite the same way, even if some unfortunate accidents had ended the lives of Newton, and Darwin, and Einstein in their childhoods and we had never heard of them.


  1. says

    By the time a paper actually appears in print, the information has already circulated widely among people working in that area and this is especially true if the work has major impact.

    Setting aside the subset of cases where “major impact” exists, is this true? I mean in areas where I have published in journals (and I’ve published a very small amount to be sure, but some) the work doesn’t require technical skills or a lab -- it’s different from work like He’s is what I’m saying -- but it is of wide interest and with international conferences being relatively rare publication is very much how communication happens internationally for work without an instant, large impact. It also serves as an important archive for researchers who weren’t “working in that area” at the time, but later take degrees in that area and are doing active work. If you got your PhD in 2005, work that was completed in 1995 is lost to you if it isn’t in a journal. So communication through time would seem to me to be an important function, perhaps even a primary one.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong when speaking about your own discipline or He’s -- I wouldn’t have enough knowledge to dispute you, even if I tried -- but on reflection, would you still say that this is true? Or would communication internationally and communication through time be important functions for work that’s not “instant impact”?

  2. Mano Singham says

    Crip Dyke,

    I should have been more clear that I was referring to scientific papers, and have added that word to make it more explicit. In scientific work, especially when it involves experimental work and laboratories, the work is so interdependent with that of others it is almost impossible for those working in the same area not to know.

    The archival value is of course important. But my point is that the information would very likely emerge in some form from other laboratories that did not skirt the ethical boundaries. You can sure that whatever He learned will be known to others, if not already then soon, at the very least by members of his research team moving to other research programs. So denying He a publication will not result in a loss in knowledge.

  3. Mano Singham says


    What I sense in reading about it is that he succeeded at least partially. I think that a definitive answer will have to await the investigation that is currently underway.

  4. file thirteen says

    Science would have progressed, if not in quite the same way, even if some unfortunate accidents had ended the lives of Newton, and Darwin, and Einstein in their childhoods and we had never heard of them.

    I remember reading a quote saying that if Einstein hadn’t come up with his special theory of relativity, someone else would have, but if he hadn’t come up with his general theory of relativity we’d still be waiting for it today. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find who said that.

    (He’s research is not remotely as valuable)

  5. Mano Singham says

    file thirteen,

    The question is whether Einstein’s GTR provides the only way to understand the large scale structure of space-time or whether in his absence another serviceable theory might have been developed and science progressed along a different path. This is something that I explore in some detail in my forthcoming book THE GREAT PARADOX OF SCIENCE: Why its theories work so well without being true.

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