Academic Warfare?

This post was co-authored by Ali Arab, Ph.D., an assistant professor of statistics at Georgetown University.

We are living in a global society driven by innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. Success depends upon free access to information and unfettered research by scholars. Yet targeted academic boycotts are increasingly common, throwing more and more roadblocks on the way to progress.

Earlier in May 2013, the decision by the world-renowned British cosmologist Stephen Hawking to withdraw from a major academic conference in Israel reignited discussions among scholars on whether or not such boycotts are ethical. Professor Hawking had accepted the invitation to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference, a prestigious conference sponsored by President Shimon Peres, and the Hebrew University.

Prof. Hawking's employer, University of Cambridge, first attributed his decision to health concerns. However, later the University made the curious announcement that Hawking's decision was made "based on advice from Palestinian academics."

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is a campaign of several Palestinian non-governmental organizations directed against Israel. Started in 2005, BDS has actively advocated boycotts of Israeli academics. BDS has successfully gained support among several world-renowned academics including Professors Noam Chomsky at MIT and Malcolm Levitt at University of Southampton. According to the Guardian, Professor Chomsky was among a group of pro-BDS academics that lobbied Hawking to boycott the conference.

Palestine, of course, is not alone in their anti-Israel stance. Israeli and Iranian politics have been at the forefront of global news, particularly since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that Israel should be "wiped off" the map. Nonetheless, Iran has its own share of academic boycotts. In late April, the academic publisher Elsevier informed their editors and staff about the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) regulations on Iran. In summary, Elsevier announced that submissions where any author is based in Iran (and is not at an academic and research institution) cannot be handled by US-based editors, US Elsevier staff, US reviewers, or any US citizens based outside of the US. The restrictions include Iranian authors with dual affiliations (e.g., university and government). Reviewers were asked to use the following text when rejecting manuscripts which fall under this OFAC regulation:

"As a result of OFAC sanctions all editorial staff who are US-based/US nationals are unable to handle scientific manuscripts which are authored by Iranian scientists, employed by the Government of Iran. Based on this OFAC regulation we are unfortunately unable to handle your manuscript. We wish you success with your submission to another Journal."

Of course, this does not mean that any such submissions should be rejected right away and Elsevier asks its editors to send submissions that fall under OFAC regulations to non-US reviewers. However, in its communication with editors and staff, Elsevier includes the following items which speaks to the practical aspects of the review processes (i.e., many rejections in practice):

• If your journal workflow involves all submissions being handled by US-based Elsevier staff, they will reject these manuscripts outright before they reach you.

• Should there be no suitably qualified editor or reviewer, please reject the manuscript outright.

Fortunately, not many major publishers have followed Elsevier's interpretation of Iran sanctions so far. However, there have been a series of academic sanctions affecting Iranian scholars over the past few years and Elsevier's recent decision may not be the last of them. In 2002, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) stopped member benefits and services to its Iranian members (as well as those in Cuba, Libya and Sudan) due to OFAC regulations. All the IEEE services (with the exception of print subscriptions to IEEE publications) for Iranian members were withheld until April 2004 when OFAC clarified that "no licenses were needed for publishing works from Iran and that the entire IEEE publication process including peer review and editing was exempt from restrictions," according to Wikipedia's notation from IEEE. In a similar incident, in 2006, more than 80 Iranian attendees of the 4th International Reunion and Conference of Sharif University of Technology Association (SUTA) in Santa Clara, CA, were denied entry into the US even though they had been granted valid US entry visas.

The academic sanctions affecting Iranian and Israeli academics, although very different in nature, both infringe on the principle of science and human rights as stated in United Nation's Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 15 requires states to:

1) recognize the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications conserve, develop, and diffuse science
2) respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research, and
3) recognize the benefits of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific field.

The short- and long-term effects of academic sanctions and boycotts are not well studied. However, the loss of academic freedom and other potential destructive effects of such boycotts (e.g., weakening of higher education in the sanctioned country, or society's lack of access to scientific and technological advancements) conflict with Article 15.

One of the earliest examples of academic boycotts dates back to the 1960's. The academic boycotts of South Africa were enforced by many international institutions and individuals at the request of the African National Congress, and as part of a larger international campaign for isolating the apartheid regime of South Africa. Ended in 1990, the academic boycott of South Africa is argued to have adverse effects on the victims of apartheid but little effects on the government. For example, Lancaster and Haricombe argued that:

"... ideas and knowledge should be treated differently than tangible commodities, that obstacles to information access could actually hurt the victims of apartheid (for example, retard medical research and, ultimately, reduce the quality of health care), and that an academic boycott (in contrast to economic, trade, or political boycott) would not even be noticed by the South African government. Change is much more likely to occur by providing information than by withholding it."

The case of South Africa is often used as a model for the academic boycott of Israel.

Similar arguments regarding the adverse effects of boycotts and sanctions on the people of the sanctioned states may be applied to the case of Iran sanctions that are affecting scholarly research and activities, technology and communication, and information access. Seemingly recognized (at least partially) by the U.S. Government, certain communication technologies were recently exempted from the sanctions in the wake of this Friday's Iranian presidential elections and in an effort to achieve "smarter" sanctions.

According to Lucie Morillon, Head of Research with Reporters Without Borders, this Friday's Presidential election in Iran will be very difficult to follow because:

The Iranian regime recently cut off access to the Internet. The current Iranian government with a record high number of imprisoned journalists, routinely censors the national press and stops foreign journalists getting into the country.

Governments and political groups (governmental or non-governmental) should recognize that sharing information freely and promoting research is in their (and their followers) self-interest by stimulating local and ultimately global economies and advancing every aspect of our lives. This is increasingly important in a world that is no longer bounded by geographical limits and societies are increasingly interconnected.

A version of this article was published at The Huffington Post.


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Nice article. However, to correct one common MEMRI-induced misconception, Iranian president Ahmadinejad did not actually threaten to "wipe Israel off the map." He said Israel would vanish from the page of history, but he made no claim that he expected his country to make that happen. Czechoslovakia has recently vanished from the page of history, to give one of thousands of possible examples of countries that no longer exist as such, without any outside power wiping them anywhere. Countries with gigantic internal contradictions (e.g., those that won't specify their borders, those that wish to be democratic while being permanently run by and for the benefit of one portion of the potential electorate) are at particularly high risk of collapsing under their own weight if their regional rivals just sit back and watch.

As to your broader point, it seems like every time I go to a conference in the U.S. there is an Iranian participant missing because he or she couldn't get a visa. This trick of giving people visas and excluding them anyway is new, though. I do not know why any international conference should be held in the U.S. under these circumstances.