Nature publisher bows to Chinese censorship

Details emerge of another academic publisher blocking access to sensitive journal articles

November 2, 2017
China communism
Source: Alamy

Springer Nature has censored some of its content in response to demands from Chinese export agencies, according to an investigation by the Financial Times.

The publisher, which produces 3,000 journals including the prestigious title Nature, has blocked at least 1,000 journal articles on subjects that Beijing deems to be politically sensitive, such as Taiwan, Tibet and the Cultural Revolution.

In a statement, Springer Nature said that it was “not in the interests” of the academic community or the advancement of research for it to be banned from distributing its scholarly content in China.

The incident comes just months after another publisher, Cambridge University Press, removed hundreds of papers and book reviews on the same topics from view in China. That move prompted widespread criticism from scholars, which forced the publisher to make a U-turn and reinstate the articles within days.

The FT investigation revealed that articles published by Springer Nature featuring specific keywords were not available inside China. A search for “Tibet” on the website of the Journal of Chinese Political Science, for example, turned up 66 articles, but none of those appeared when the same search was performed from within China. Searching the same website for the words “Cultural Revolution” brought up no articles in China but 110 outside, according to the report.

It is unclear exactly how much of Springer Nature’s content is affected. A statement from the publisher puts the figure at less than 1 per cent; however, given that it has in excess of 7 million articles, it could be as many as 7,000.

Springer Nature said that a “small percentage” of its content was limited in mainland China but was accessible “via other means”. “This action is deeply regrettable but has been taken to prevent a much greater impact on our customers and authors and is in compliance with our published policy,” it added.

“This is not editorial censorship and does not affect the content we publish or make accessible elsewhere in the world. It is a local content access decision in China done to comply with specific local regulations,” a statement said.

“In not taking action we ran the very real risk of all of our content being blocked. 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.”

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Reader's comments (1)

Chinese censorship brings up another issue about the intellectual integrity of Chinese journals that are published by Western companies such as Springer, Routledge. Chinese journals are obviously prohibited from publishing banned topics (not "sensitive" topics), so does that disqualify them from being published by Western publishers? And if China hosts an international sociological or political science congress, they will prohibit censored topics and perspectives so should professional societies agree to have China host them? Can Chinese academics serve as officers of academic societies if they must use their influence to censor topics and perspectives, or else be punished by their universities?