Since Russian forces invaded their country, Ukrainian scientists have repeatedly issued a plea to the world’s journal editors: Punish Russia by declining to publish manuscripts from its scientists. But editors and publishers have largely refused the call.
The journals cite a long-held principle in scientific publishing, enshrined by the International Science Council and other organizations, to not discriminate against authors based on their nationality or political views. That ideal was honored for decades during the Cold War, when journal editors welcomed papers from authors in the Soviet Union. Editors view the practice as preserving free scientific inquiry and transcending geopolitical disputes. Boycotts in scientific publishing have been rare—and one of the best known, against German authors after World War I, was abandoned a few years later as a failure.
But as Russia’s military unleashes brutality not seen in Europe since World War II, Western institutions have begun to cutt other kinds of research partnerships with Russia—raising questions about whether the publishers’ neutrality will or should last. “If we now fight wars with economic and soft power, does it not follow that science institutions, including journals, should cut links with Russian institutions and perhaps even Russian scientists?” asks Richard Smith, former editor of The BMJ in an 8 March commentary. “I’m glad that I’m no longer the editor and don’t have to decide.”
Caroline Sutton, CEO of the International Association for Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers (STM), a trade group, says she does not know of any publishers who have decided to forbid content from Russian researchers. “A few are having that conversation internally.” Her group plans no collective decision. “The weight of this situation is not lost on anyone who is having to contemplate this,” she adds. (Science plans no boycott, says Holden Thorp, its editor-in-chief.)
At the moment, the Journal of Molecular Structure, produced by publishing giant Elsevier, is the only journal reported to be boycotting manuscripts from Russia.
The policy was crafted to target papers from scientists at Russian institutions, says the journal’s editor-in-chief, Rui Fausto of the University of Coimbra. “Russian research institutions are supported by the Russian government and support it,” he says. The ban does not apply to Russian scientists in other countries but does apply to scientists of any nationality working for Russian institutions. “The decision is a matter of conscience of the editors, an expression of their solidarity for all people affected by the conflict, and it has not been influenced by any political judgment of the situation but only by its humanitarian consequences,” Fausto adds.
A different approach was taken by the editors of Physical Review C, published by the American Physical Society. It focuses on nuclear physics, a discipline in which Russia publishes many papers. After Russia invaded Ukraine, two members of the journal’s 10-member editorial board who work at German national laboratories expressed concern that their government’s suspension of research collaborations with Russia meant they couldn’t review papers with Russian co-authors, says Editor-in-Chief Joseph Kapusta, of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The board agreed to allow those editors to recuse themselves from such papers, he says.
“I totally sympathize and empathize with Ukrainians,” Kapusta says. But he also agrees with APS’s policy against discriminating based on political views and doesn’t think the journal’s papers help Russia gain any technological advantage. “We don’t publish anything that’s classified,” he says. “It’s just basic science.”
Even if many journals were to embrace a boycott, the effect on the global number of scientific articles would still be small. Russian authors contributed to about 82,000 published articles in 2018, only about 3% of the global total and second lowest among 15 large countries. But in relative terms, their share had grown rapidly: Over the previous decade, Russian articles had risen by 10% annually, more than in any large country other than India, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation. That increase partly reflects a 2012 move by Russia’s government to reward academics for the number of papers they publish.
Despite the growth, Russia’s annual production of papers has remained well below that of the Soviet Union when it broke up in 1991, a larger country that spent a bigger share of its gross national product on science.
And peer attention to Russian papers has lagged. In 2019, the rate of citations to them was the lowest among papers from 10 large countries, STM reported. One reason is that many scientists publish in Russian-language journals, says Michael Gordin, a historian at Princeton University who has studied Russian science. The low citations also result from a dearth of international collaborations that include Russian scientists—which in part stems from U.S. limits on visas for them to visit, he says.
According to research by Gordin and other historians, the most prominent historical ban in scholarly publishing— a boycott against German and Austrian scientists after World War I—proved ineffective and unsustainable. The ban, slated to last 10 years, until 1931, targeted all scientists from those countries, not just those who supported Germany’s war effort.
“It didn’t stop any science,” Gordin says. During the 1920s, German scientists continued to publish in German-language journals—and to win Nobel Prizes. “And [the boycott] didn’t deter scientists from being jingoistic in the next war, either,” Gordin adds. “It was never quite clear what it was supposed to achieve, other than making certain people feel like they were punishing the Germans.” The ban ended in 1926 when Germany was invited to join the League of Nations. (During World War II, a combination of military censorship and suspension of postal mail slowed the delivery of manuscripts across country borders, making a boycott of German manuscripts moot, he adds.)
Gordin, who recently ended a 2-year stint as a research scholar at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, says he has the same question today about the value of potential boycotts of Russian papers. “I’m not clear on what the goals are. We don’t have a good way of separating people from their institutions, and we blame people for what their institutions do.”