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The publisher Springer Nature has blocked access to more than 1,000 journal articles in China to comply with government censors, the Financial Times reported. The newspaper found that more than 1,000 articles had removed from the websites of two Springer journals, the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics. All the blocked articles referred to sensitive subjects in China, including “Taiwan,” “Tibet” and the “Cultural Revolution.”

Academics criticized the censorship, which follows a similar case in August in which Cambridge University Press blocked access to more than 300 articles in The China Quarterly journal  – a decision it reversed after coming under fire from academics who accused the press of privileging the economic benefit of continued access to the Chinese market over protecting academic freedom.  Other journals have also reported receiving requests from Chinese censors to block access to certain articles. Lexis Nexis reported earlier this year that it withdrew two of its products from China, including an academic research database, after being asked to remove content. 

Jonathan Sullivan, the director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and author of one of the articles removed from Springer’s China website, is quoted in the Financial Times piece saying he believes this is “a symbol of how unprepared we are in the west for China’s influence expanding outwards.”

“China sets the rules for what goes on in its territory, and whether we agree with them or not we have to respect that,” Sullivan wrote in a blog post in which he expanded on the topic. “Censorship by western academic institutions, including trade and university presses, is thus a story about us and our values. China is set on pursuing its own model and it is evident at this point that the west is not going to have much impact on the contours of Chinese norms. The question is whether Chinese norms will start to impact our own behaviors. In fact, there is sufficient evidence that the question is not 'whether' but rather 'to what extent.'"

In a statement provided to Inside Higher Ed, Springer Nature acknowledged that “a small percentage of our content (less than 1 percent) is limited in mainland China” and said it is “required to take account of the local rules and regulations in the countries in which we distribute our published content.”

“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,” the publisher 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."

The editor of one of the affected journals, International Politics, told Inside Higher Ed he was not involved in the decision to block access to some of the journal’s content in China. “I was completely unaware that certain articles from the journal International Politics were being blocked in China, and so as a matter of some urgency I will be seeking a meeting with the publishers to find out what has been taking place and how the situation can be resolved,” said Michael Cox, the journal editor and a professor emeritus of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “It goes without saying that my first priority is to maintain and defend the principle of academic freedom.”

The editor of the second journal affected, the Journal of Chinese Political Science, did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s inquiry seeking comment.