Should trade embargoes apply to scholarship?
SPARC Open Access Newsletter, issue #67
November 2, 2003
by Peter Suber

The US-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has 350,000 members worldwide, including 2,000 members in Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and the Sudan.  Because the US has a trade embargo against these nations, the IEEE has felt obliged to deny these members all the goods and services prohibited by US trade laws.  This has meant blocking these members from reading the IEEE online journals and barring editors of IEEE journals from editing their papers.  As the IEEE reads US trade law, it could accept papers from these members but could not edit them, since editing was a "service" that falls under the trade embargo.  Six other international scientific and engineering societies contacted by the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ did not read the law the same way, and edited accepted papers by any author.

Last December the IEEE asked the US Treasury Department to clarify the law on this point, and the clarification came down on on October 1.  The IEEE was right: American journals can accept articles by Iranians but cannot edit them.  The reason is that editing adds value to the article and that brings it within the scope of trade a embargo.  (Never mind that publishing adds value to the unpublished manuscript.)  American journals that want to edit articles by citizens of embargoed nations may apply to the government for a license.

Of course peer review and copy editing improve articles.  The question is whether these kinds of improvements ought to be covered, hence barred, by a trade embargo.  In the IEEE case, the edited articles would be published in an American journal, published by an American professional society.  The author would not be paid --not because the author is from an embargoed country, but because scholarly journals don't pay authors royalties.  No additional money would flow to the embargoed country on account of the editorial improvements.  Moreover, if the purpose of the embargo is to exert pressure on the embargoed country to change its national policies, one can question whether impeding the progress of science for everyone, as opposed to special impediments that only affect the embargoed country, is an ethical or even an effective strategy.  It's true that the impediment to the progress of science is a small one.  But would we pollute the air, even a little bit, in order to pressure Iran to change some national policy?

I don't criticize the IEEE for obeying the law.  I condemn the law.  Moreover, I wouldn't criticize any publisher who disregarded the embargo, edited worthy submissions from anyone, waited for a cease and desist letter from the government, and then challenged it in court. 

Finally, I'm appalled that a scholarly journal would have to apply to the government for a license to edit articles submitted by citizens of certain countries.  But this is exactly what the US Treasury Department now requires.  I know we're still near the top of the slippery slope, not at the bottom.  But I don't want to take any further steps toward government-licensed science, nationality-based qualifications for scientific publication, or the application of trade law to the sharing --and enhancing-- of scientific knowledge.

Lila Guterman, "U.S. Policy Restricts Scientific Publishing by Researchers in Countries Under Trade Embargo", _Chronicle of Higher Education_, October 2, 2003.  (accessible only to subscribers)

Lila Guterman, "Embargo Imbroglio", _Chronicle of Higher Education_, October 17, 2003.  (open access)

On October 15, the _Chronicle_ hosted an online colloquy on the controversy.  A transcript is now online.

I obtained a copy of the Treasury Department letter to the IEEE and posted it to our discussion forum.


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