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Online archives are revealing uncensored history of science

Nature volume 456, page 870 (18 December 2008) | Download Citation

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Search engines are invaluable for finding out about the latest research but, thanks to publishers' efforts to digitize back issues of scientific journals, we can now also search deep into the past. And what turns up isn't necessarily pretty.

In the CAB (Centre for Agricultural Bioscience) abstracts database, for example, I found more than 100 articles written by the discredited Soviet geneticist Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. One of his most astounding reports, in a 1947 issue of the journal Literaturnaya Gazeta, declaimed that: “intraspecific competition does not occur... the opposition of bourgeois geneticists to this theory is attributed to their desire to justify capitalist exploitation, which is essentially a struggle within the human species”.

Another search, using Web of Knowledge, brought up hundreds of Chinese scientific articles from the decades after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, with titles such as 'Chairman Mao's brilliant philosophic thought guides me in winning triple cropping with high yield' (Li K. C. Sci. China Ser. A 20, 391–391; 1977).

Also using Web of Knowledge, I came upon 70 research papers by Claus Schilling, the Nazi war criminal who conducted medical experiments on prisoners in Dachau concentration camp. None of his wartime research is in the database but, as I scrolled through the record of his publications, I found myself looking for the point at which he had gone wrong.

These examples stand in contrast with the high-minded official version of science history that we read in textbooks. As Thomas Kuhn remarked in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Univ. Chicago Press, 1962), science is like Big Brother's society in George Orwell's 1984 — constantly rewriting history to show itself in the best light.

But will this censorship be possible when every politically motivated, unethical and demonstrably incorrect scientific article breaks out from dusty library storerooms to appear online? How will anyone be able to believe that science is an honest quest for truth, when its inglorious past is a mouse click away?

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  1. Diamantina Institute for Cancer, Immunology and Metabolic Medicine, University of Queensland, Princess Alexandra Hospital, Ipswich Road, Woolloongabba, Queensland 4102, Australia  w.burns@uq.edu.au

    • William Burns

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https://doi.org/10.1038/456870b

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