The editor of a long-established academic journal has said he resigned after his publisher vetoed a call to boycott Chinese science in protest at Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Prof David Curtis, from University College London’s Genetics Institute, says his resignation as editor-in-chief of the Annals of Human Genetics is an issue of freedom of speech in the face of the science community’s increasing dependence on China.
The Annals was one of five prestigious academic journals, including the Lancet, the BMJ and the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama), that refused to publish an article suggesting that academic journals should take a stance against China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.
The journals involved have defended rejecting the piece and claimed that a boycott against China would be unfair and counterproductive. They have also denied being unduly deferential to China. But both the Annals publisher, Wiley, and the Lancet did suggest that publication of the letter could pose difficulties for their respective offices in China, the authors claim.
Curtis co-authored the article but said he was prevented from publishing it in his own magazine. He handed in his notice last September in protest and then stood down with immediate effect after rejecting submissions from Chinese academics. Only now has he revealed his reasons for quitting.
Curtis said: “I resigned because publication of the article was blocked by senior managers at Wiley who should have no say in the content of a scientific journal. I was told that Wiley has got an office in Beijing, the implication being that publication would make it difficult.”
He added: “The publisher has no business telling the editor what they can and can’t publish because of strong interests in China.”
Curtis said the alleged abuses against Uyghur families, including the mass collections of DNA samples without consent, was especially troubling in the field of genetics and for a magazine that was founded in 1925 as the Annals of Eugenics.
He accepted that his position became untenable when he began rejecting submissions from Chinese authors. He told them: “In view of the complicity of the Chinese medical and scientific establishment in human rights abuses against the Uyghurs I am not considering any submissions from China.”
Wiley said this amounted to a breach of its policy not to “discriminate on the basis of national origin of its submitting authors”. In a statement on its website it said: “The actions of Prof Curtis did not represent journal policy, nor did they represent the views of others involved in the management of the journal. We have contacted the authors of the wrongly rejected submissions and will reconsider their manuscripts.”
Mark Paalman, Wiley’s publisher of the Annals, emailed Curtis suggesting changes to the article to make it “less provocative” and acknowledge the “legitimate” science that takes place in China. In another email he said he respected “the concept of academic freedom and moral duty”.
Prof Thomas Schulze, from Munich’s Institute of Psychiatric Phenomics and Genomics, another of the co-authors of the article, claimed the reluctance to publish the original showed “freedom of speech in western science is under threat because of Chinese influence”. He said: “We were turned down because all these journals are heavily invested in China with business and editors there.”
The Lancet group said it did not comment on papers it had not published. In an email to Schulze, its editor, Richard Horton, said: “Boycotting Chinese medical science will only make it hard for Chinese health worker colleagues who are trying to do the right thing in an increasingly difficult situation. Also, the Lancet has a Chinese editor based in Beijing and I don’t wish to do anything that might imperil her personal situation.”
A spokesperson for the BMJ said: “Our decision was not in deference to China and we do not believe that a blanket ban on publishing science from China or any other country would be helpful. It is worth pointing out that they [the authors] are complaining about their academic freedom while they seek to curtail the academic freedom of medical researchers serving a population of over 1 billion people.”
The editor-in-chief of Jama sent Schulze a standard rejection letter pointing out that it receives 14,000 manuscripts each year.
Human Rights Watch, which has campaigned against China’s persecution in Xinjiang, said the article raised important issues. Maya Wang, its senior China researcher, said: “While it is impossible for me to know why the article was not accepted for publication in the journals where it was submitted, the issue identified in the article of human rights abuses affecting Uyghurs is an important one and one that public health and medical professionals should be aware of and engaged with.”