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Study finds scientific censorship more often self-inflicted and on the rise

Musa al-Gharbi headshot

Musa al-Gharbi headshotA new report finds that scientists are more likely to censor themselves and one-another than to be deliberately censored by non-scientists, and that such scientific censorship may be on the rise.

Musa al-Gharbi, an assistant professor at Stony Brook’s School of Communication and Journalism, is one of the lead authors of the report, published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Censorship is often discussed in terms of outsiders with bad motives trying to suppress the truth,” said al-Gharbi. “However, the best available data suggests that scientific censorship, while often damaging in practice, is generally well-intentioned and carried out by scientists themselves.”

The study found that most modern scientific censorship comes not from institutional authorities exerting deliberate control over the flow of information, but from scientists’ own motivations related to protecting themselves or others from perceived harm. 

The authors of the study suggest that scientists may attempt to suppress findings out of concern for potential harm to individuals or groups, particularly groups that have traditionally been marginalized, and an expanding definition of what constitutes harm. 

“This paper thoughtfully examines a question that is increasingly important as trust in scientists and other experts continues to decline,” said Laura Lindenfeld, dean of the SoCJ and executive director of the Alda Center for Communicating Science. “Just as important, it suggests potential actions that we can take across academic institutions, journals and scientific societies to ensure that there is honesty and transparency in what research is being put forward and why. I deeply commend Musa and his colleagues for starting a conversation about censorship in research.”

The study analyzed and compiled existing data to draw its conclusions. It also argued that increased transparency about the peer-review process, including about reasons particular papers were rejected, could help reveal editorial decisions that were influenced by factors other than the quality of the research itself. The authors posited that without increased transparency into the academic publishing process, it would be difficult to get a full understanding of the impact of bias and censorship on research.

The research team included scholars from 30 other organizations in addition to Stony Brook, including the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Heterodox Academy, and the University of British Columbia.

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