WHEN news of a government-funded study linking aspirin to reduced risk of heart attacks was released last winter, the announcement was timed to accommodate the restrictive publishing policy of a private scientific journal. The New England Journal of Medicine, which published the study results, also wanted to be the first to tell the story. This raised the recurring question of how far a scientific journal can go in telling publicly funded scientists when they can discuss their work. We now have an answer. A journal goes too far when concern for its restrictions leads scientists to withhold data from government committees for fear of not being published.
This recently happened when a committee of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) considered a gene transfer experiment involving humans. The omission - later corrected - prompted NIH director James Wyngaarden to declare that NIH committees ``would not be held hostage to the New England Journal of Medicine.''
Arnold S. Relman, editor of the medical journal, and Daniel E. Koshland Jr., editor of Science, which also restricts prior discussion of papers it publishes, promptly disclaimed any intent to impede official business. Disclosure of research to such bodies would not jeopardize publication of that work in their journals, they said.
That's nice to know. But it doesn't settle the issue. Scientists wishing to publish in such leading journals have been gagged for many years from talking publicly about that work before the journals' release dates.
The journals justify this practice by saying they want ``orderly,'' not ``fragmented,'' public discussion of scientific work. There is merit in the quality control that journals exercise in subjecting papers to stringent review by experts in the authors' fields. But individual journals gain a commercial advantage when they are the first to announce important scientific findings. It is not clear that it is the lofty motive of quality control rather than competition that underlies the strictness with which some journals enforce their restrictions.
Whatever the motive, the result has been a fear of prepublication discussion that sometimes reaches a ludicrous degree. Scientists may refuse to talk with reporters after their work becomes known. And, as happened with the NIH committee, they may even hold back information from government bodies.
The restrictive journals have a responsibility to relieve the excessive fear their policies have instilled. Two have tried to, as far as disclosing data to official bodies is concerned. But what of public discussion of important issues involving scientific findings?
No private journal has a right to act as censor when tax-funded research is relevant to discussion of public issues. These editors should further clarify their policies to assure would-be authors that participating in public discussion will also not jeopardize publication of their work.
A Tuesday column