Scholars at Risk, a US-based network of universities, is to investigate creating an index for academic freedom that may rank countries according to the threats and restrictions their academics face.
The group, based at New York University, will work on a pilot project to determine if it is possible to overcome the difficulties of collecting reliable, comparable and relevant data.
Sar arranges short-term academic positions for scholars of any discipline and from any country who suffer violence or other threats because of their work. Since 2000, it has received more than 500 requests for assistance from candidates in more than 90 countries and has helped more than 80 with temporary visitor positions or other relief. The index would reflect existing indices such as Transparency International's naming-and-shaming list of corruption and bribery.
Sar defines academic freedom as the right of scholars to teach and discuss, to carry out research and to disseminate and publish their results; to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work; to be free from institutional censorship; and to participate in professional or representative academic bodies without fear, persecution, harassment, intimidation and violence, without discrimination and without constriction by prescribed doctrine.
Organisers believe an index could be used to put pressure on regimes to reduce violations of academic freedom. International funding agencies could use the index to help them channel resources to countries where academic freedom was not at risk and to help them decide how to approach states with a record of violations.
Robert Quinn, director of Sar, said: "Evidence suggests that academic communities remain favourite targets for repression. In the information age, the scholar's role is shaping the quality and flow of information.
Repressive authorities intent on controlling societies naturally seek to control that power. Scholars are obstacles to these goals because the nature of their work requires the development of ideas, exchange of information and expression of new opinions. Where the ideas, information and opinions are perceived by the authorities as threatening, individual scholars are particularly vulnerable."
Christopher Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, admitted: "Not everyone will agree on the definition (of academic freedom) that is settled upon."
Audrey Chapman, director of the human rights programme of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said: "The monitoring we have to see as a systematic process to keep track of the actions - and inactions - of governments, government institutions and other authorities."
John Akker, executive director of the UK-based Network for Education and Academic Rights, called for a UN declaration on academic freedom to give the initiative a legal framework.
Among other speakers at the Sar conference held on April 28-29 at New York University was Vladimir Dounaev, first vice-rector of the Belarusian European Humanities University, now functioning from Lithuania owing to government repression.
Orlando Albornoz, professor of sociology at the Central University of Venezuela, set out the difficulties of conveying the concept of academic freedom in Central and South America. "In some parts of the world, they only see academic freedom in terms of being in jail or out of jail."