Issues of censorship surrounding the publication of scholarly research in China have been prominent since a series of press reports and publisher statements revealed that works had been removed from circulation that were deemed sensitive by Chinese buyers. As George Cooper observes, evidence that Chinese authorities are conducting pre-publication vetting of COVID-19 related research, raises new challenges for publishers seeking to distribute open access research papers on this subject, as there is little ground for publishers to remove these papers from their platforms. As publisher commitments to openness collide with their obligations to operate within the legal frameworks of the countries they operate in, it is argued that COVID-19 presages an overdue discussion on the limits of openness in publishing.
Earlier this month, the websites of Fudan University and the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan briefly revealed a system of pre-publication vetting of COVID-19 research. If accurate, these regulations could have far-reaching consequences, both for research communities in China, and for the global scholarly communications industry. The university notices, now removed, revealed requirements for China-based researchers to seek approval from China’s Ministry of Science and Technology before publishing research on the novel coronavirus, with a special emphasis on articles that pinpoint its origins. Publications will be vetted by government officials, who will assess both their ‘academic value’ and whether the ‘timing for publishing is right,’ raising the spectre of scholarly censorship that routinely shrouds research activities in China.
For now, China’s restrictions on COVID-19 research apply only to domestic scholarship. But research in China on COVID-19 is published widely, often in high-impact, English-language journals. Given recent precedents, pre-publication restrictions could signal a shift in focus regarding the post-publication distribution of journal articles by non-Chinese scholarly publishers. In recent years, journal articles on topics such as persecution of the Uighur Muslim ethnic group in Xinjiang, civil unrest in Hong Kong, and the ‘three Ts’ – Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan – have come under intense scrutiny by Chinese state authorities. Cambridge University Press, Springer Nature, Sage and Taylor & Francis, in 2017 and 2018, were forced to navigate the demands of the General Administration of Press and Publications, rendering the distribution of research containing sensitive keywords, such as ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘Cultural Revolution’, illegal in China. These events led to accusations of censorship complicity, as some publishers took steps to remove or restrict access to sensitive articles on their Chinese-language platforms; whilst others had entire journals removed from circulation by Chinese research importers for refusing to ‘bowdlerize’ their online collections.