Protest against Springer bowing to censorship

Heidelberg, October 2, 2018

Press Release: In Protest against Springer Nature Bowing to Censorship Demands, Editors of “Transcultural Research” Book Series Decide to Discontinue Publishing with Springer Nature

The present and former editors of the book series Transcultural Research agreed to discontinue the publication of this series with Springer Nature. Asked by their Chinese distributors to take off from their on-line package a number of articles that touched on subjects such as the Cultural Revolution or the 1989 Tiananmen protests and their suppression, Springer acceded without even informing the authors of the articles concerned. Answering a letter of protest from the editors of the Transcultural Research Series, Springer claimed it was just abiding by local laws and proudly reported that by doing so it had actually increased sales in China.

For a scholarly publisher, this is an unacceptable breach of trust both with the authors and the international scholarly community. There is no “law” in China that bans treatment of these topics but only an informal unpublished directive from the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department that discussions of the topics mentioned should be “managed” in the sense of being kept from the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 %” 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.

Springer claimed that the experience of Cambridge University Press, which initially succumbed to Chinese demands (but directly informed the authors concerned) and then reversed itself to reinstate the incriminated studies, resulted in the complete ban within China of the journals concerned. Upon inquiry, Cambridge University Press has confirmed that this information is freely invented. Subscribers of the relevant CUP journals in China have full access to all articles published there. However, a number of Chinese subscribers have cancelled their subscription – perhaps to signal their authorities that they are overly eager to fulfill possible requests from the political authorities.

Springer Nature publishes a number of important scholarly journals such as Nature. It seems that it never occurred to this publisher to take the natural step of a publisher committed to the freedom of scholarship, namely to push back against this censorship imposition. China has great ambitions to develop its most advanced scholarship. Within China, having an article published in Nature or similar journals comes with huge prestige and liberal access to funding. A publisher committed to the freedom of scholarship would have – perhaps in cooperation with other publishers such as Elsevier or Cambridge U Press – offered the People’s Republic the choice to be cut off from the entirety of modern scholarship or accept the rules governing the independence of scholarship from such random interventions. It is possible and even likely that any government interested in scientific progress would have silently shelved such an outrageous demand.

We are greatly saddened by this subordination of the openness of scientific research to short-term monetary concerns by one of the largest scholarly publishers and call upon the scholarly community to take all the steps necessary that such a behavior will not be tolerated by either the scholars themselves, by subscribers, or by the agencies actually funding the bulk of the research eventually published by Springer.

The present and former editors of the series Transcultural Research.

Madeleine Herren-Oesch
Thomas Maissen
Josef Maran
Axel Michaels
Barbara Mittler
Rudolf G. Wagner <wagner@asia-europe.uni-heidelberg.de>

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