Author: Juan F. Trillo, PhD in Linguistics and Philosophy (U. Autónoma de Madrid), PhD in Literary Studies (U. Complutense de Madrid).
“Censorship” is not a pleasant word to anyone. Its connotations are almost always negative and, in the first instance, an effort should be made to find circumstances that justify a restriction of information. Even more so in the scientific field, where empirical evidence should prevail over authority, tradition, rhetorical eloquence or social prestige. Science seeks above all to obtain the truth through a strict methodology and the provision of contrasted information. However, numerous and very diverse factors mean that research results do not always see the light of day, often under the pretext of avoiding the harm that their dissemination could cause.
However, a recent study by Cory J. Clark (University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia) et al. (1) concludes that censorship in science is much more widespread than one might think and comes mainly from the scientific establishment, even from the researchers themselves. By way of example, they point out that the historic and well-known trial of Galileo Galilei in the early 17th century was instigated by his colleagues, the Aristotelian professors at the University of Pisa (2), who appealed to the Church to intervene and impose an exemplary punishment on the dissident astronomer.
Although this essay, published in PNAS, does not provide relevant conclusions —somewhat expected—, its merit lies in its methodical and exhaustive approach, which provides a clear view of the state of the question. On the other hand, the doubt posed by the authors of the article and which remains unsolved is whether the supposed benefits of scientific censorship outweigh its costs and undesired effects in the medium and long term.
It is undoubtedly a muddy terrain in which different issues are often mixed up and treated as if they were all one and the same thing. For this reason, researchers have endeavoured to provide a taxonomic classification of censorship, the actors who carry it out, their motives and its possible consequences. They make clear from the outset the meaning they give to the term “scientific censorship”: any action aimed at preventing certain scientific ideas from reaching their intended audience, for any reason other than poor research quality. A definition that is relevant, especially in the times we are living in, with a proliferation of pseudo-scientific studies and reports, whose authors cry out when their publication is rejected or their conclusions are dismissed outright. It is not uncommon for such authors to complain of censorship —or of prejudice of all kinds— when in fact the rejection is motivated by the poor quality of their work or a lack of empirical rigour. As the authors of the study point out, a rejection in a peer review may be mistakenly interpreted as censorship, when in fact it is motivated by poor exposition, poor methodology or poor documentary support. This may well explain some of the cases that occurred in relation to COVID-19 research, when several scientists claimed that their results were being censored for contradicting those of mainstream science (3).
On the other hand, in the section on actors applying censorship, scientific publications play a relevant role, as was to be expected. Last year, the journal Nature stated in its editorial section that authors, reviewers and editors must take into account the “potentially harmful implications” of a research (4), while Nature Human Behavior, also in an editorial column, warned of the possible rejection of articles with the potential to undermine the dignity of certain groups considered especially vulnerable (5). Thus, scientific censors may be motivated by a desire to avoid harm to society, perhaps due to misuse of particular research results (6), or simply by fear of a widespread adverse reaction.
This censorship can take the form not only of editorial rejection, but also of loss of grants, loss of academic prestige or professional marginalisation, and self-censorship by researchers themselves is not uncommon. As an example, the essay mentions that in a survey among New Zealand academics earlier this year (7), 53% of respondents said they do not feel free to express unpopular or controversial views, while 48% said they do not find it easy to present papers or argue in support of views that differ from the consensus among their colleagues.
One of the most immediate and serious consequences of censorship in science, along with the suppression of accurate and truthful information, is the loss of credibility in the discipline, in scientific institutions and in their findings. What happened during the recent coronavirus pandemic shows the effects that the scepticism of part of the population has on health policies (8, 9). From there to the proliferation of extremists and charlatans who disseminate pseudoscientific data and information, but who obtain a similar credibility to official scientists, there is a very small step.
The outlook, according to the authors of the essay, is not optimistic, given that censorship in science seems to be increasing in recent times. However, their proposal is not aimed at eradicating or even reducing this censorship, but rather at increasing the study of this communicative phenomenon in order to be able to rationally evaluate the costs and benefits of these policies of information restriction.
In their conclusions, the researchers acknowledge that they have more questions than answers. Clark and his colleagues believe that in certain situations the application of scientific censorship serves, or could serve, a “greater good“, although it is difficult to know for sure until hard scientific data is available. As we said at the beginning, scientific censorship or transparency, if we prefer, is a historically controversial issue, involving factors —political, social, economic or moral— that go far beyond the scientific method, so it is doubtful that definitive conclusions will ever be reached. However, any stimulus to reflection and debate in this area is welcome, and from this point of view, the present essay is of great interest. Freedom of information in general and especially in the scientific field should be a universally recognised value, unless we admit that sometimes ignorance contributes to our well-being or, in other words, that there are things that are better left unknown.
- ‘Prosocial motives underlie scientific censorship by scientists: A perspective and research agenda.’ PNAS, 2023. 10.1073/pnas.2301642120
- S. Drake, Galileo’s explorations in science. Dalhousie Rev. 61, 217–232 (1981).
- E. Väliverronen, S. Saikkonen, Freedom of expression challenged: Scientists’ perspectives on hidden forms of suppression and self-censorship. Sci. Technol. Hum. Values 46, 1172–1200 (2021).
- Nature Editorial, Research must do no harm: New guidance addresses all studies relating to people. Nature 606, 434 (2022).
- Nature Human Behaviour Editorial, Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans. Nat. Hum. Behav. 6, 1029–1031 (2022).
- M. S. Bernstein et al., Ethics and society review: Ethics reflection as a precondition to research funding. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 118, e2117261118 (2021).
- “Academic freedom survey” (F. S. Union Tech. Rep., 2023).
- D. M. Kahan, What is the “science of science communication”? J. Sci. Commun. 14, Y04 (2015).
- D. M. McLaughlin, J. Mewhirter, R. Sanders, The belief that politics drive scientific research & its impact on COVID-19 risk assessment. PLoS One 16, e0249937 (2021).