A Tale of Two Publishers: Is censorship the new normal?

Written by Kevin Carrico.

On August 18th of this year, news broke that Cambridge University Press was censoring over 300 articles from China Quarterly on its Chinese website. The deletions were requested by Beijing, based on indiscriminate keyword searches like “Tibet,” “Tiananmen,” and “Taiwan.” Media attention rapidly focused in on this censorship, academics penned open letters, and outrage spread quickly, engulfing Facebook, Twitter, and academic mailing lists with calls to boycott Cambridge University Press. Then, on August 21st, as these calls reached a crescendo three very long days later, Cambridge suddenly announced that it was reversing its decision, and would no longer comply with Beijing’s censorship requests.

On November 1st of this year, news broke that Springer Nature was censoring more than a thousand articles on its Chinese website. The deletions were again in response to requests by Beijing, based on indiscriminate keyword searches like “Tibet,” “Tiananmen,” and “Taiwan.”

Media attention and academic outrage have again spread relatively quickly. Yet something is different this time around. By this point in the Cambridge controversy, six days after the news broke, the press had already reversed its initial cowardly decision. There is no sign that Springer Nature is about to experience any such change of heart. In its most recent statement, Springer again emphasized that it is simply abiding by “China’s regulatory requirements”. And on Saturday, Chinese state media announced a new “strategic partnership” between Springer and Chinese IT censorship and monitoring giant Tencent, purportedly to encourage scientific innovation. Springer is also publishing the English translation of the latest tome in Xi Jinping’s rapidly proliferating corpus, Xi Jinping Tells a Story. If this is not a case of doubling down, I don’t know what is.

Why, then, have these two parallel cases of censorship unfolded so differently within the narrow span of just three months? One factor could be the respective publishers’ stakes in the China market. I have seen a number of unconformable rumours that Springer may be considerably more reliant than Cambridge upon its China business for its very survival. Although this may or may not be the case, an element of nuance must be added here: far more than any particular publishing market with its particular legal or extra-legal “regulations,” these publishers are in all cases 100% reliant upon the global academic community, who write and review for them with reliably little compensation, if any. And the founding principles of this global academic community, we cannot forget, are academic freedom and the sanctity of the writing and peer review process.

Yet despite the fact that Springer Nature relies on us as academics to do its work for it, and despite the unprecedented magnitude of Springer’s academic censorship across platforms in violation of the fundamental values of the academic community, outrage about Springer Nature’s violation of our trust seems to have faded relatively quickly. We then need to look to the academic community and ask: why the weak response?

One possibility that I have considered is elitism. The idea that the prestigious (and imminently prestigious sounding) Cambridge University Press is censoring content, and particularly focusing its censorship efforts on its top-ranked China Quarterly, easily begets outrage. By contrast, the fact that the slightly less felicitously named Springer Nature, home to Springer and Palgrave McMillan and countless other subsidiaries, is also censoring content may be somewhat less jarring at first glance. Nevertheless, Springer Nature is one of the largest academic publishers in the world, and beyond my familiar terrain in the humanities and social sciences, publishes pioneering scientific scholarship through longstanding journals and magazines like Nature and Scientific American. Thus, while Springer Nature isn’t exactly as catchy or imposing of a name as Cambridge University Press, Springer Nature must still be held to the same standards of transparency and academic freedom- to expect otherwise would in fact give Springer an unfair business advantage to collude in censorship without principles for profit, creating an uneven playing field for global publishers.

Another possible source of the differing responses to these two scandals is the different publishing groups served by the two publishers. The fact that the China Quarterly had published a number of China scholars who were well informed about the insidious effects of censorship on academic integrity in China and beyond certainly helped in gathering a critical mass to oppose Cambridge’s decision. In comparison, the editors of and contributors to Springer’s China-focused journals, such as the Chinese Journal of Political Science or the Frontiers in China series, many based in PRC academia and thus already all too familiar with such practices, are unlikely to be very outspoken on these matters, for both systemic and understandable personal reasons. Nevertheless, Springer Nature is also home to a number of distinguished international academic journals whose editors do not operate under the increasingly draconian controls of the Xi regime- I have no way to explain why many of these editors and contributors have been so comparatively reserved in responding to this latest censorship scandal.

If none of the factors above can explain the different courses of the two censorship scandals, another more distressing explanation, and a possibility that I have come to consider increasingly likely in recent days, is that these types of attacks on academic freedom for access to the China market could gradually become the new normal for all of us: shocking the first time, but gradually something to which we will all grow accustomed.

Springer has been the most determined proponent of such normalization of censorship, claiming that this is simply a matter of obeying the law. Yet if this was simply a matter of being ethical and obeying the law, as Springer claims, they could have proudly made these deletions public, and notified affected authors once they were implemented. Who doesn’t appreciate a publisher that obeys the law? Yet the law is, to put it lightly, a bit Kafka-esque in China, and this is most likely why Springer kept silent when these blocks were put in place, maintained its silence during the Cambridge controversy this August, and in fact still refuses to reveal the extent of censorship, or even when this censorship started: information that Cambridge made public immediately. Springer is, in effect, censoring details of its own censorship, all the while arguing very unscientifically that censorship simply isn’t censorship. Such attempts are not, unfortunately, a new higher-level form of dialectics discovered by Supreme Leader Xi Jinping, but rather cowardly attempts to hide and excuse censorship.

In the face of such obstinate and self-serving cowardice, we as academics and readers need to recapture our shock. If the Cambridge University Press censorship row seemed like an assault on the best academic practices and basic academic freedoms, the Springer censorship revelations are an even more direct assault on these practices and freedoms. Springer’s “legal” actions are of benefit to no one besides itself and the increasingly retrogressive Xi regime and are a disservice to its forward-looking content providers and consumers- writers, reviewers, and readers. Authors and reviewers who have volunteered their time to a for-profit company are having their trust violated by overeager censors. Meanwhile, readers in China are being turned into second-class readers in a secret agreement between the Xi regime and Springer, which leaves them paying full price but denied full access in a condescendingly separate and unequal arrangement that will directly impede Springer’s stated goal of “discovery.” And the insults don’t stop there- the wholesale deletion of “Tibet” and “Taiwan,” indiscriminately erasing entire peoples from the academic record, should be met with revulsion in a global academic community increasingly vigilant against such racism. There is nothing in these revelations, in fact, that is not blatantly outrageous.

So let’s recapture the outrage. The only path to correct these outrages, in the end, lies in each one of us: writers, reviewers, and readers. We are all disadvantaged by Springer’s unethical business decisions, and we are also the people upon whom Springer relies upon for new materials and the best peer reviews. Springer should not only stop censoring details of its censorship by opening up about when this censorship began and how far it reaches but must also end all of its censorship immediately. Until Springer takes these steps to correct these outrages, all academics who care about academic freedom and the rights and dignity of the Chinese people should refuse to work or write for Springer Nature or any of its subsidiaries (BioMed Central, Palgrave Macmillan, Nature, Scientific American, Adis Internation, Apress, Macmillan Education) in any form. Only then will Springer be reminded of whom they really rely upon for their success.

Kevin Carrico is a Lecturer in Chinese Studies at the Department of International Studies Macquarie University. His most recent book is The Great Han- Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today. Image credit: CC by Good Free Photos/Cambridge.