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Authorship and politics

At the beginning of 2017, political activity globally has begun to impinge on academia in ways that are both troubling and novel.

Academic freedom being challenged is, of course, not new. In the USSR the repression of science by the state was routine. In the not too distant past a chilling effect on academic research in the USA was well documented and the current political climate there appears to pose considerable challenges to academic freedom.

At this point in time however, we wish to alert COPE members and others to a specific issue that has been brought to our attention and to offer suggestions for how to handle it. The issue came to us through our network of publishers that we regularly have contact with and has arisen at more than one publisher.

The cases concern authors wishing to publicly dissociate themselves from published work.

In each of the cases described to us authors have requested that papers they are co-authors on are retracted.The reason given is that one of the other co-authors has been arrested and imprisoned (but not convicted ) of “terrorism”. The papers themselves are not on anything related to terrorism.

According to our guidelines and those of others there are no reason for these papers to be retracted. Yet the co-authors are clearly under some pressure and/or are anxious about their own personal safety.

Our initial reaction was to not recommend retraction but to honour the authors’ requests to be removed from the paper, with a neutral note indicating thus. We understand however, that this action may not be sufficient for some authors.

There are clearly bigger issues at play here than the publishing of papers. There is academic freedom, but also personal safety and the use of publishing as a tool of repression. We have substantial concerns about the authors who are to remain on the paper (the ones who have been arrested). It is obviously impossible to get their perspective here, which we would normally expect publishers to do.

At COPE, we have on occasion been made aware of publishing ethics issues that have wider ramifications, including the personal safety of authors, reviewers and editors. In each of these cases we have, unsurprisingly, advised that the safety of humans comes before specific publishing ethics issues and we would take the same approach here.

Advice for publishers and journals

Our advice is therefore as follows. We recognise that this is a far from ideal response to an almost impossible dilemma.

  • Publishers and journals should assess each case carefully and be sure that they have as much information as possible.
  • If, after assessing the case, it is clear that not removing the authors will lead to personal danger for the authors, then the journal should take steps to issue an editorial note indicating the authors’ removal. If possible, the paper itself should not be retracted.
  • The publisher and journal should keep careful records of such instances, including what action was taken should the action need to be reviewed in future.
  • The publisher should consider contacting the authors’ institution(s) if that can be done in a way that does not pose additional threats to any of the authors.

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