‘An Unacceptable Breach of Trust’

Editors of book series stop publishing with Springer Nature to protest its acquiescence to Chinese government censorship demands.

October 3, 2018
 

The editors of the book series Transcultural Research have discontinued publishing the series with Springer Nature to protest its decision to accede to the Chinese government’s censorship demands.

The Financial Times first reported last year that Springer Nature had blocked access in China to more than 1,000 articles in two political science journals dealing with sensitive subjects in China such as Taiwan, Tibet and the Cultural Revolution. The publisher issued a statement at the time acknowledging that “a small percentage of our content (less than 1 percent)” was limited in mainland China in order to “comply with specific local regulations.” Springer Nature -- which publishes the flagship science journal Nature -- defended the decision to limit access to certain content in China on the grounds that otherwise it would “run the very real risk of customers [in China] not being able to access any of our content.”

The editors of the Transcultural Research book series, which is connected with the Heidelberg University research cluster on Asia and Europe in a global context, were unpersuaded by Springer Nature’s reasoning.

“For a scholarly publisher, this is an unacceptable breach of trust both with the authors and the international scholarly community,” a group of six former and current editors of the Transcultural Research series wrote in a press release announcing their decision to switch publishers. “There is no ‘law’ in China that bans treatment of these topics but only an informal unpublished directive from the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department that discussions of the topics mentioned should be ‘managed’ in the sense of being kept from the public. The Springer argument that ‘only 1 percent’ of Springer Nature articles offered were affected disregards the fact that once this door of accepting censorship orders is opened, nothing stands in the way of China (or any other state) expanding its list of banned subjects. There are enough states in the world who will see the Springer Nature behavior as a guarantee that they, too, may randomly and without disadvantages ban the scholarly discussion of topics they find objectionable for religious, ideological, political, race or other reasons.”

Rudolf G. Wagner, a senior professor of Chinese studies at Heidelberg University’s Asia and Europe cluster and an associate at Harvard University’s John K. Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, said he is concerned about the threats to independent scholarship everywhere.

“Our concern is that once you get this idea, that you just have to tell these guys to take down this or that you don’t like, what does Mr. Erdoğan [the president of Turkey] do the next morning? Any reference that refers to Ataturk that we don’t like, out of it. Anything that refers to Gülen, out of it,” Wagner said.

He continued: “I think that there is a serious danger there that you start opening that door and a lot of people are going to march through that and say, ‘thank you.’”

“Independent scholarship is already all over the place in great difficulty because of financial concerns, political concerns and so on, and if we are moving into blunt censorship of certain articles because they don’t fit the propaganda department’s agenda, this is totally unacceptable.”

The Transcultural Research book series is now being published by Heidelberg University Publishing, an open-access publisher. Separate from the decision by the Transcultural Research series editors, scholars previously organized a peer-review boycott of Springer Nature publications to protest its compliance with Chinese censorship requests.

Springer Nature’s decision to stick by its decision to restrict access to certain scholarly content in China stands in contrast to that of Cambridge University Press. Cambridge initially acquiesced to demands from a Chinese import agency to block access to more than 300 articles on sensitive topics published in the journal The China Quarterly before reversing course and restoring access after facing a storm of criticism from academics.

In a letter to the Transcultural Research editors, Steven Inchcoombe, Springer Nature’s chief publishing officer, cited Cambridge's reversal in relation to its own decision to stand its ground in complying with censorship requests. “As a result of not complying with local Chinese laws, Cambridge University Press has for example had all articles from ‘banned’ journals (both new articles and those previously accessible) and all books deemed to be ‘suspect’ by Chinese importers or by the Chinese government’s appointed online text mining engines, are now blocked from being accessed in China,” Inchcoombe wrote. “This is why we did not then and do not now believe that further limiting or stopping access in China to all the other content we publish is in the long term interests of the advancement of research and the academic community, both in China and world-wide.”

However, Wagner said his own inquiries with The China Quarterly suggest that -- contrary to Springer's characterization -- the journal remains fully accessible in China, although there has been a drop in institutional subscriptions. The editor of The China Quarterly, Tim Pringle, confirmed this.

"We are grateful to Professor Wagner for alerting us to the mistakes contained in Springer Nature's response to current and former editors of Transcultural Research over the publisher's decision to censor articles pertaining to sensitive subjects in China," Pringle said via email to Inside Higher Ed. "The China Quarterly has been subject to a significant drop in institutional subscriptions in China, but we not aware of any text-mining activities by the Chinese authorities that would in effect block all access to our journal. CUP has informed us that the CUP/CQ site and tables of content remain available -- although all purchases go through import agencies. We have also conducted our own checks and these confirm availability. We are therefore surprised by the content of Springer Nature's letter, and have contacted CUP to investigate further."

In a brief statement, Cambridge University Press said that it makes its entire academic catalog available throughout the world, including in China. "Chinese importers decide which publications they will purchase for dissemination within China," the publisher said.

A spokeswoman for Springer Nature, Susie Winter, said via email that, “in relation to CUP, there has perhaps been a misinterpretation of what was said. Our understanding is that institutions in China have not taken a license for these journals. So, while they are not blocked, they, in effect, cannot be accessed in China.”

More broadly, Winter described the restrictions on Springer Nature content in China as “a highly regrettable situation” but reiterated what she described as Springer Nature’s obligation to "operate our SpringerLink platform in compliance with their local distribution laws governing what content Chinese citizens can access."

“We are obviously disappointed at the decision by the editors to discontinue the publication of their book series with us but if we had not complied with this requirement we were facing very real and significant risks to our ability to distribute all our content in China -- something we did not feel to be in the interest of the advancement of research and the academic community, both in China and world-wide,” she said.

Springer Nature's move to restrict certain content in order to preserve access to the whole run counters to general recommendations from the Association of University Presses, whose board issued a statement in March on just this question.

"Because of the increasingly digital nature of scholarly communications, requests to restrict access to specific elements of a larger digital collection within a given market seem likely to become a more common form of attempts at government censorship," the statement said. "AUPresses encourages university presses generally to withhold their consent to any such request, whether made directly or via a third-party aggregator, even if doing so results in the unavailability of the entire digital collection within that market. Scholarly integrity mandates that scholars and students accessing digital content encounter the same body of content, regardless of their geographic location. Additionally, even when digital access to content is available at increasingly granular levels (e.g., a journal article, a book chapter), any bowdlerization of a curated collection of scholarship (e.g., a journal issue, an edited volume) does damage to the editorial work invested in the construction of that collection. Acquiescence to government requests to restrict access inevitably would produce a disfigurement of the scholarly record."

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