Pre-emptive sanctions

August 15, 2013

As part of its sanctions against Iran, the US government recently issued a regulation that in effect prohibits any US citizen from managing or processing a journal article on which at least one author is employed by or funded by the government of Iran. At least two major journal publishers – Elsevier and Taylor & Francis – have agreed to support this regulation and have instructed their UK journal editors and editorial board members to refrain from sending out for review any such articles to a US citizen – typically a university academic. A major justification given by the publishers is that they do not wish inadvertently to place such reviewers in breach of the regulation.

This decision was made, as far as we are aware, without discussion with editors or editorial boards, and it amounts to a form of academic censorship that is very worrying. If an editor decides to go along with this policy, some articles from Iranian researchers may not get a proper review or indeed any review at all.

While we do not wish to comment directly on the general issue of sanctions, extending them to obstruct the free flow of scientific information seems to us to be totally unacceptable. We believe that many US colleagues would agree. If publishers are concerned about inadvertent contraventions of US regulations by US citizens, then at the very least, potential US referees should be given a choice whether to undertake the review or not.

If academic publishers hold true to their often stated commitment to freedom to publish, why are they not lobbying the US administration to withdraw this regulation and making public their opposition to it? In the past the US administration has been forced to backtrack on similar attempts at coercion by the refusal of researchers and their representative organisations, including the Association of American Publishers, to cooperate.

If editors and editorial boards associated with these and other publishers were to make clear their opposition to this decision and to refuse to implement it, this form of censorship would become impossible to operate. It would also send a useful warning to other governments that might be tempted to introduce a similar regulation, not just in the case of Iran but in any other country where such a curtailment of academic freedom is being contemplated.

Harvey Goldstein
Professor of social statistics
University of Bristol

John Bynner
Emeritus professor
Institute of Education, University of London

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