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Academics Protest China’s Censorship Requests

Scholars have formed a peer-review boycott to encourage journals to take a firm stance against requests to cull sensitive articles.

Feb 20, 2018
Shawna Williams

ISTOCK, NIRODESIGNMore than 1,000 people from around the world have signed a petition calling on major journal publishers not to censor their offerings within China in response to governmental pressure. The petition pledges a peer-review boycott, stating, “we will not agree to provide peer review service until editors confirm that their publications do not censor content in the [People’s Republic of China], and we call on all others to do so as well.”

The petition, launched in October 2017, followed news last summer that some publishers and databases based outside China had received requests from Chinese importers of their print and digital content to block online access to certain academic articles within the country, says the petition’s creator, Charlene Makley, an anthropologist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Cambridge University Press revealed in August that it had been ordered by its Chinese importer to block access to hundreds of articles in its The China Quarterly journal within the country; it reversed course following an outcry from academics. In October, the Financial Times reported that some articles in Springer Nature’s journals cannot be found within China, including many with terms such as “Tiananmen,” “Taiwan,” and “Tibet.”

Read “Springer Nature Blocks Access to Sensitive Articles Within China

The Cambridge University Press revelation “was kind of a watershed event in my mind . . . it brought to my attention that the reach of China had extended beyond its own borders,” Makley says. “I contacted some colleagues informally to talk about what they thought folks should do, and to me peer review is the very foundation of academic publishing . . . If we start there, then that is one way that individual scholars can have some leverage.”

The idea is not so much to force change by making it hard for journals to find willing peer reviewers, but more to prompt awareness of and conversations about the issue among journal editors. Makley says some editors may not be aware of their companies’ practices, and she hopes her initiative will prompt managing editors and publishers to establish a position on censorship if they haven’t already. Before she agrees to a request to peer review a manuscript, Makley now asks the journal editor whether the journal or its owner censors content in China, and “in multiple cases they’ve come back with strong statements saying that they don’t censor,” she says.

James Millward, a historian at Georgetown University and supporter of the petition, also sees withholding peer review as a particularly fitting way to respond to censorship. “It’s not perfect, but [peer review] is the system that we have evolved over centuries, and that is what makes academic speech different,” he says. Given that journals are curated by peer review, for an outside entity “just to come in and pick and choose [which articles to make available] is actually to violate this process at a very fundamental level,” he says.

Our Chinese colleagues in China are at risk of not having full access to all research that’s available.—Charlene Makley, Reed College

A spokesperson for Sage, which publishes more than 1,000 journals in the natural sciences and other fields, writes in an email that, “We have not received a request from the Chinese authorities or other entities to remove or block access to certain documents or content within China. . . . As a matter of general principle, SAGE Publishing does not block or remove content in response to such a request.”

In response to a request for comment, Elsevier spokesperson Tom Reller responded in part, “Elsevier believes in the freedom to publish and read scholarly content anywhere across the globe.” But Reller did not say whether the publisher had received requests to censor comment, nor how it would respond. The UK-based publisher Taylor & Francis declined to comment, and Wiley (whose more than 2,000 journals include the Chinese Journal of Chemistry, published in cooperation with the government-affiliated Chinese Academy of Sciences) did not respond to requests for comment.

Springer Nature defended its move to make some content unavailable in China, stating in an email to The Scientist, “we are required to take account of the local rules and regulations in the countries in which we distribute our published content. . . . This action is deeply regrettable but has been taken to prevent a much greater impact on our customers and authors. . . . We do not believe that it is in the interests of our authors, customers, or the wider scientific and academic community, or to the advancement of research for us to be banned from distributing our content in China.” Springer has offices in Beijing and Shanghai and publishes more than 100 journals in partnership with Chinese academic societies and institutions, according to its website.

For Millward, who specializes in China and Central Asia, Springer’s argument doesn’t hold water. “They publish Nature, they publish Scientific American, they publish among the most important scientific journals. China is not going to block access for its scholars from all of those journals,” he contends.

That said, access to many other major sites, ranging from Google to Facebook to The New York Times, has been blocked by China’s “Great Firewall.” For residents willing to go to the trouble, virtual private networks (VPNs) have long been used to circumvent these restrictions, but the government has recently cracked down on those too, according to The Guardian and other outlets.

As of the deadline for this article, China’s Foreign Ministry had not responded to a request for comment.

Makley says it’s important that academic publishers not accede to governmental pressure. “This is not just about China or China-related research,” but about the expansion of state power, she says. “Our Chinese colleagues in China are at risk of not having full access to all research that’s available.”

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