IEEE members furious

Members protest engineering society's actions to comply with US trade embargoes

By | March 16, 2004

The world's largest association of technical professionals is under attack by thousands of its members worldwide who are angry at the way it has chosen to comply with the US trade embargoes of Iran, Cuba, Libya, and Sudan.

More than 5100 people—most of them members of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)—have signed a petition calling on the organization to “cease discrimination against IEEE members from countries that are embargoed by the US government.”

Members from nonembargoed countries are mad about several actions IEEE has taken—and hidden from them, they say—over the past 2 years: abruptly dropping embargoed members' services, not approaching other scientific organizations for help in fighting one particularly objectionable embargo regulation, and unilaterally pushing for federal ruling on its meaning that now prohibits all American societies from publishing almost all Iranian-authored papers.

“This has created just tremendous bad will toward the IEEE,” said Kenneth Foster, a University of Pennsylvania professor of bioengineering and an IEEE fellow, “not only from the Iranians, but from Europeans and actually from all over the world. A lot of these people are dropping memberships.”

The petition's administrator, professor Michael Gevers of Universite Catholique du Louvain in Belgium, said that the one fifth of the petition's backers who attached a note sent “extremely angry comments… Many of them say, 'If that continues, I will not renew my membership,'” he told The Scientist. About 1000 of the signatories are from the United States, Gevers said.

IEEE's 2004 president, Arthur Winston, responded to Gevers in a January open letter, asking for his support of IEEE's actions, “not antagonism or additional conflict.”

The IEEE has more than 360,000 members in 175 countries, including students at more than 1200 universities. It publishes more than 100 journals, including four in the biosciences: biomedical engineering, nanobioscience, neural systems and rehabilitation engineering, and information technology in biomedicine.

The controversy began in August 2001 when an American bank rejected a check IEEE had written to pay for a meeting room in Tehran, where it planned to hold a conference. Examining the trade embargo and talking with OFAC officials, IEEE lawyers decided that most services it provided to members in the four embargoed countries were likely illegal.

In January 2002, IEEE dropped those members' E-mail aliases (@ieee.org) and their online access to IEEE journals, stopped giving them discounts on IEEE meeting fees, stopped elevating worthy members to senior member and fellow status, cut off student chapters, and forbade all chapters from using the IEEE logo.

The only notice those members received was an IEEE E-mail saying that their journal subscription was the only service they could keep, according to an IEEE spokesperson. No arrangements were made for an orderly transfer to other E-mail addresses. Foster told The Scientist that senior engineers in Iran “have told me that all of a sudden, their e-mail vanished. IEEE was sending all their incoming E-mail to the ieee.org E-mail alias to the trash can and never told them.”

That infuriated the 1700 Iranian members of IEEE, all but 200 of whom have since quit the organization, Foster says. Ferdun Hojabri, the San Diego–based president of the alumni association of Sharif University, Iran's most prestigious technological institution, accuses IEEE of removing the services “not on advice of the government, just their own interpretation.”

What seems to upset the irate IEEE members most is the decision to seek clarification of the objectionable embargo regulation, a move that has a consortium of American publishers now considering suing to overturn the government's resulting decision. The regulation says that a law allowing informational materials to pass freely between the United States and embargoed countries doesn't apply to information that is not yet “fully created.” When IEEE asked informally in 2002 what that meant, OFAC said that peer review and style editing of journal articles might violate the embargo.

Last September, OFAC ruled that editing embargoed submissions of any kind is illegal. Most other societies have ignored the ban, although the American Society for Microbiology refuses to publish any Iranian papers.

Former member of the IEEE board of directors Michael Lightner defends asking for the clarification. “I want to know what the rules are before I object to something,” he said. In October, IEEE applied for a general license to edit embargoed manuscripts. It is still waiting for a reply.

Early in 2003, IEEE promulgated a policy allowing individual journal editors to reject papers submitted from the four embargoed countries out of hand if the editors did not want to risk sending them for peer review and possible publication without editing. Very few Iranian papers have been published since. Lightner said IEEE's conservative approach is necessary because it provides several member services, while other scientific societies only publish journals. Spokesmen for other societies and publishers agreed IEEE's situation is different.

IEEE decided to keep its policy secret. In an undated memo, Lightner and former IEEE president Michael Adler wrote the editors that “improperly understood or presented [the policy] could cause great concern with our volunteers and members. Therefore,” they continued, “we are asking that the distribution be limited to those with a direct need to know, based on their position in our publications activities.”

In an open letter to members last October, Adler admitted that the organization has kept its members essentially in the dark about its embargo-related actions for 2 years.

Foster called that “a pretty shabby deal… It's one thing to decide that you really have to step back until you see what the law says, but it's another thing to do this without any kind of transparency,” he said.

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