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

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3 Scopus citations


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-613
Number of pages17
JournalScience and Engineering Ethics
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The author is indebted to: his respondents; Professors Peter Messeri, Stephen Hilgartner, Harriet Zuckerman, Michael Harrison, Miles Little, Gavin Mooney, Nurit Guttman, Mervyn Susser, Ronald Bayer, and Colin Soskolne; to anonymous reviewers; and especially to Dr. Stephanie Bird. Portions of this work appeared in much earlier form as a doctoral dissertation in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University, from which it received the Marissa de Castro Benton Prize. This work was partly funded by a National Science Foundation Dissertation Improvement Grant.


  • Epidemiology
  • Ethics
  • Publication
  • Responsibility
  • Scientist


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