Call for boycott of Springer Nature and Palgrave Macmillan, over China censorship

Magnus Fiskesjö's picture

Members will remember that Cambridge University Press recently was in the news over a decision to accept censorship in China as a condition for selling "products" there.

After an international campaign, they reconsidered, and reversed the decision (see the related H-Asia thread).

Now a new peer review boycott is afoot, of Springer Nature and Palgrave Macmillan on the website.

The New York Times and the Financial Times have reported on the issue.

The FT article says, among other things, that: "Springer Nature, the German group that bills itself the world’s largest academic book publisher" [and which owns Palgrave Macmillan and Scientific American], "has blocked access in China to at least 1,000 articles, making it the latest international company to succumb to intensifying Chinese censorship demands. Research by the Financial Times shows the publisher has removed more than 1,000 articles from the websites of the Journal of Chinese Political Science and International Politics, two Springer journals, in the Chinese market. All of the articles in question contained keywords deemed politically sensitive ... Springer said in a statement that it had blocked access to 'a small percentage of our content (less than 1 per cent)' in mainland China but that the articles remained available elsewhere. ... It said it was obliged to comply with 'local distribution laws', which are enforced by its partner, the state-owned China National Publications Import & Export Corporation..."

They are of course NOT obliged to comply with censorship laws ... They can leave. As the "world's biggest academic publisher" they now have the world's academics' attention fixed on them. What's their choice? Honor and reputation as an academic publisher, or, quick and dirty money under a censorship regime?!

Magnus Fiskesjö,

H-Asia readers might find the Financial Times article mentioned above to be paywalled. If it is not accessible, its author, Ben Bland, has also summarized the issue and expanded on it via his Twitter feed.

In a Twitter thread on November 1, 2017, he noted that Springer Nature publishes over 2,500 academic journals. Therefore, the publisher's disclaimer that the censorship they have willingly accepted removes "less than one percent" of their content still denotes a very large amount of content. The figure Bland cites of "over 1,000 articles" removed was based, he reports, on a quick for a few key terms within two journals -- the total number for censored articles across the whole Springer platform would be much higher.

Bland also relays the point that academics provide free content and free labor to publishers in the form of articles, reviews, and peer review. Withholding this labor is the point of the petition noted in Dr. Fiskesjö's post.

Washington Post editorial, November 4, 2017:

"A prestigious research publisher gives in to China’s censorship"

"SPRINGER NATURE ... portrays itself as a champion of open access to reports of scientific research. Its website declares that “research is a global endeavor and the free flow of information and ideas is at the heart of advancing discovery.” Yet in China, the company has compromised this core principle. "  (read more)

Don't miss these excellent commentaries on Springer's censorship, including by one of the British authors censored by Springer: 

Dude, where’s my paper? By Jonathan Sullivan. China Policy Institute: Analysis November 1, 2017.

The Soft Power of Chinese Censorship. By Christopher Balding. China Policy Institute: Analysis, November 6, 2017.

A Tale of Two Publishers: Is censorship the new normal? By Kevin Carrico. China Policy Institute: Analysis, November 8, 2017.

It does seem that Springer etc. has capitulated. It will now be up to us to boycott them and refuse to work for them. See links in the third piece. 

I don't know if Springer will set up a booth at the AAR, but if they do, I will certainly stop by there to voice my concerns.


That's a great idea, Chuck. I would encourage anyone else to do the same at their annual meetings. I will be personally delivering paper copies of the petition to academic presses at the AAA and AAS.


Chinese government pressure on press, internet and academic media within their country is, without a doubt, a major inconvenience for scholars working within China, but is that outrage appropriate and a boycott the right way to go? Consider that censorship levels are far higher in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran, or how scholars across poorer countries in Africa and Latin America and South Asia have limited access to many leading journals because they are overpriced, or that scholar in violent societies like Colombia and Mexico avoid many subjects due to a lack of freedom imposed by criminal murderous gangs, or that many anglophone West-centric academics ignore scholarship from China, South Asia and Latin America because they are unable to read those languages. I think this discussion is important and it is right to call out publishers that bow to censorship pressure, but it is wrong to blame China and Palgrave alone. A more fundamental debate should be had about what dominant scholarly opinion does to perpetuate eurocentric hegemonic discourse, and how that could be redressed - not through government censorship, it is true, but neither by simple boycotts.

Benjamin, you are quite right to use this moment to raise awareness of more widespread forms of censorship which takes place in the variety of forms you mention and more.

In terms of actionable strategies, I think it's important to focus energies on specific instances of of censorship creep by Springer and other similar parties, especially when they have such high visibility. Each theatre of censorship, like Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Latin America, has its own particularities which require different (although related) lobbying tools and arguments.

I want to congratulate Charlene and Chuck for taking it directly to the publishers. And I want to add that it's not only incumbent on authors who submit articles (and might limit their career opportunities for publication), but also, and perhaps more effectively, on academic societies who publish journals with these distributors, to pull their journals. I help manage the journal Asian Medicine: Tradition and Modernity, and we recently were about to pull the journal from Brill because it didn't provide online open-access to readers in South, South East and East Asia, that is, scholars and informants who provide the knowledge that we write about in the journal. (Exactly the kind of disprivileging you wrote about Benjamin). After negotiations with them, we agreed a five-year disembargo for the entire journal, and free access for the entire society up to current issues. We and Brill are all very happy with this agreement.

Journal editors have a lot more say than we might credit them with, when the society is behind them. You don't have to limit your activism to signing petitions to put on Palgrave's door. Talk to your editors, your publishers. Raise it in your society meetings.