US reverses journal embargo

Treasury Department says peer review, copyediting of papers from embargoed nations are OK

John Dudley Miller(
Apr 6, 2004

The United States has decided that a prominent scientific society can edit journal articles submitted by authors in four embargoed countries, reversing a ruling it made last fall that even the most minor corrections of grammar and spelling in those manuscripts were forbidden. But it is unclear how broadly the new policy applies to other American academic publishers whose editing processes may differ from that society's.

In a letter written last Friday (April 2), but only made public on Monday (April 5), the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) said that “style and copy editorial changes” made in accordance with the standard practices of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in its 100+ journals are exempt from OFAC rules regarding Iran, Cuba, Sudan, and Libya. The letter also reaffirmed that peer review, the way IEEE customarily practices it, is permitted.

Arthur Winston, IEEE's president, said Monday said the ruling was “great. It's wonderful.” Robert Bovenschulte, president of the publications division at the American Chemical Society, agreed. “Our major concerns have now been resolved,” he said.

“This is at least a good first step,” said Samuel Kaplan, a professor at the University of Texas at Houston and chair of the American Society of Microbiology's publications board. However, he added, “we need to get our own specifics with regard to the Treasury Department, and we will be getting in touch with them.”

Other journal publishers found the decision disappointing. Marc Brodsky, executive director and chief executive officer of the American Institute of Physics, said yesterday (April 6), “It is not a clear victory for freedom of the press.” Mark Seeley, counsel for Elsevier and chair of an informal task force of publishers considering suing the Treasury Department, said Monday, “It does not resolve the fundamental issues about US government intervention in scholarly publishing.”

In a joint statement, the Association of American Publishers, the Association of American University Presses, and the PEN American Center said Monday that although “we appreciate” the affirmation of IEEE's editorial processes, the new ruling leaves many questions unanswered. Except for the new IEEE exemption, the three organizations wrote, OFAC “continues to insist that statutes passed by Congress explicitly exempting 'informational materials' from the reach of US trade embargoes (the so-called Berman Amendment) do not apply to 'informational materials not fully created and in existence at the date of the transaction.'“

In addition, the three groups wrote that the ruling did not change last fall's OFAC ruling that “'collaborative interaction' [equivalent to coauthorship] between the publisher and foreign author is prohibited.” The Treasury official said Monday that the OFAC ruling came to no conclusion about whether a paper jointly authored between American and embargoed-country scientists violates its rules.

In a statement on Monday, OFAC characterized its ruling as “confirming that OFAC does not regulate the important peer review process, as well as the process of style and copy editing, with respect to scholarly papers submitted by authors in a Sanctioned Country.”

In a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, a senior Treasury official repeated that point, but he also made it clear that the ruling does not apply to peer reviewing or editing done differently than the IEEE process described in a series of submissions it made to OFAC over the past several months. “This ruling, of course, is limited to the facts that were submitted to us,” he said.

It is not clear how the ruling will affect the task force's deliberations about whether to sue the Treasury Department. Allan Adler, counsel and vice president for Legal and Government Affairs and task force member of the Association of American Publishers, said yesterday, “Our preliminary view is that we are not substantially in a different position than we were before the release of this letter.” He said the task force will meet in the next 2 weeks to decide what action to take.

The IEEE's 2002 decision to cut services to members from embargoed countries in response to preliminary OFAC advice raised a firestorm of protest from thousands of its members, but Winston said on Monday that the group will examine the ruling to see if it allows them to reinstate those services. The Treasury official said on Monday that the ruling does not address that issue. Officials at most other scientific societies had largely ignored OFAC's decision last September.