Springer Nature blocks access to controversial topics

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by Hans Dembowski

German science publisher caves in to Chinese censorship

Springer Nature, the Germany-based publisher, has blocked access to about 1000 online articles in China.

According to a company statement, less than one percent of its content is now no longer accessible to Chinese Internet users.The blocked articles concern politically controversial topics such as Tibet or the Cultural Revolution. These are topics the Chinese regime does not want to be discussed. The publisher argues that it must comply with “local distribution laws”. Springer stated that the step was necessary to avoid Chinese authorities blocking all Springer content.

Springer Nature is a science publisher that is not linked to the newspaper publisher Springer. It owns high profile publications such as Nature and Scientific American. The company also owns Palgrave-Macmillan books. It is Germany’s most important academic publisher.

The Financial Times reports that it checked the websites of Springer’s Journal of Chinese political science. A search for “Tibet” did not deliver any results in China, but 66 articles outside the country. A search for “Cultural Revolution” similarly did not deliver any results in China, but 110 outside the country. The implication is that academic essays dealing with important issues of recent history are no longer accessible to scholars in the country concerned. Springer is censoring its publications to please the communist regime.

No doubt, the publisher is under pressure. The People’s Republic is a big market where it can make lots of money. Nonetheless, its step is unacceptable. An academic publisher must serve academic freedom as a top priority.

This is not the first time that a high profile publisher has caved in to the demands of Chinese authorities. In August, Cambridge University Press (CUP) likewise blocked access to controversial content. This decision backfired however. Members of the academic community rose up in protest and threatened not to cooperate with CUP anymore. Under such pressure, CUP reversed its decision. I hope that Springer will now face similar pressure and respond accordingly.

In an era of fake news, academic freedom matters more than ever. The peer review that scholarly articles are submitted to is a very tough form of fact checking. It not only checks facts but also assesses whether the underlying assumptions make sense. The information provided in scholarly articles is thus the most reliable we have. And this is exactly the reason why authoritarian leaders who are uncomfortable with the truth are often so uncomfortable with science as well.

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