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Publishers Face Prison For Editing Articles from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya or Cuba

February 24, 2004



Hannah Sassaman

Program director of the "Prometheus Radio Project"

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently declared that American publishers cannot edit works authored in nations under trade embargoes which include Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba. [includes transcript]

Although publishing the articles is legal, editing is a "service" and the treasury department says it is illegal to perform services for embargoed nations. It can be punishable by fines of up to a half-million dollars or jail terms as long as 10 years.

  • Robert Bovenschulte, president of the publications division of the American Chemical Society, which decided this week decided to challenge the government and risk criminal prosecution by editing articles submitted from the five embargoed nations.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control recently declared that American publishers cannot edit works authored in nations under trade embargoes, which include, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba. Although publishing the articles is legal, editing is a, quote, service, and the Treasury Department says it’s illegal to perform services for embargoed nations. It can be punishable by fines of up to half a million dollars or jail terms as long as ten years. Robert Bovenschulte is with the American Chemical Society, which decided this week to challenge the government and risks criminal prosecution by editing articles submitted from these five embargoed nations. Can you talk more about this decision?

ROBERT BOVENSCHULTE: Certainly. Let me make clear first of all that we are by no means alone in taking this position. In fact, there are very few publishers that have decided to restrict their normal publishing activities as a result of the OFAC ruling, which was issued in late September. The difference for the American Chemical Society, which, by the way, is the largest professional society in the world with 160,000 members, was to take a moratorium and put that in place in November while we studied the impact of the ruling, and the legal situation and sorted out our options. Because, therefore, we have now lifted the moratorium, we have actually have more attention paid to us than perhaps is necessary, because in fact, major commercial publishers and other society publishers like the American Chemical Society are in fact continuing to publish just as they have. Most of them never stopped. We simply took a pause to reassess the situation. It is very peculiar. You can divide the so-called services into two categories; one is the traditional peer review function whereby noted scientists in given fields are asked by our editors, who are also experts, to review a given article and make a judgment about it, whether it is publishable or not, whether it’s important work, and also to offer comments that might improve the work. The second category has to do with what is regarded as copy editing and this means, of course, correcting grammar, rewriting some sentences in minor ways, changing punctuation, and conforming the material to a given style guideline. Curiously, the OFAC ruling when it came out in late September seemed to permit peer review, but very definitely prohibited this copy editing function. We had clarification from OFAC that probably peer review is indeed permissible and does not violate the trade embargo. We believe however, that this needs to be cleared up in its entirety. And the copy editing matter is particularly curious because — basically, they are alleging that some important service is being provided by a person who sits there and makes sure that the language of the paper — these are highly technical papers, by the way, that the language has appropriate English and conforms to publishers’ style guidelines. This is curious to us and we cannot understand really what the rationale for that prohibition is. So, publishers under the auspices of the Association of American Publishers, which is our trade association, have in fact formed a litigation task force. We haven’t yet taken action and haven’t even decided that we will take action. But we believe we are on very good grounds, legally, on two bases. One is the first amendment, our right to publish, because what OFAC is doing is a classic example of prior restraint; the second is the so-called Berman amendment, which was passed in 1988 by Congressman Howard Berman, who is still in the Congress. His amendment exempted information materials from the items that would be applicable under trade embargo. So, we believe we’re on good legal grounds. We have lifted the embargo–sorry–we have lifted the moratorium, because we do not want to restrict publication since this is a worldwide activity and we believe the only basis for deciding what to publish should be the merits of the science.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you can public articles, research papers from Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, and Cuba, as long as they have mistakes in them?

ROBERT BOVENSCHULTE: That’s one way of looking at it. The mistakes that we would catch in a copy editing process would be relatively minor in terms of the substance of the article. We were very concerned that the — if peer review was denied or peer review could be done, but the comments from the peer reviewers could not be sent to the authors for correction, that would involve then potentially really substantive errors or mistakes in those papers. And of course, we did not want to be publishing something that might contain errors that we could have caught through the peer review process.

AMY GOODMAN: Is there a specific article right now that you are working on that you are editing from a particular embargoed country?

ROBERT BOVENSCHULTE: We are working on a number of papers at the moment. I believe most, if not all of them, are from Iran. There have been a few from Cuba, but I don’t know where they are in the process right now. But, yes, we are definitely working on multiple papers. We had 195 subcommissions from Iran in 2003, and published 60 of those papers.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does the government contend is the danger of these reports?

ROBERT BOVENSCHULTE: The OFAC logic appeals to a concept of providing services.

AMY GOODMAN: I just want to explain OFAC, of course, Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department.

ROBERT BOVENSCHULTE: Right. And they have said, while peer review is probably okay, but if we edit material, we as American citizens are providing a service to the authors in those countries, and that is prohibited. We find this an absolutely bizarre ruling because there is — we cannot see that there is any risk at all to national security or on any other grounds that would lead any reasonable person to prohibit copy editing, And furthermore, we don’t see why they would make such an issue out of this. One straw in the wind is–and very bothersome — this all began, as a matter of prologue, this all began because the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ran into a problem in a conference that they ran in Iran about two years or so ago. And they had difficulty then bringing funds back from Iran and that’s where this issue first arose, and then it cascaded into questions about publication. The IEEE, I just mentioned, has applied for a license because OFAC has said that if you apply for a license to do this prohibited activity, we will consider it on the merits of the individual case and render a judgment whether we will permit you to go ahead and do your normal activities, or some subset of those normal activities. Now, IEEE is still waiting on their license application, which they submitted in October. What worries us as publishers generally about this, is that we are in the position, if we apply for a license, asking permission of the government as to what we ought to publish, and how we ought to publish it. We believe that is a fundamental violation of the first amendment. And so, our principled stance at the American Chemical Society is, we are not going to apply for a license. If we must fight this legally in concert with other line-minded publishers, of which there are many, that’s what we will have to do.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for joining us and finally ask Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists where you go from here. You have published this major report. You have more than 70 scientists. 20 of them Nobel laureates, who are now protesting the Bush White House’s politicizing of science. What happens next?

ALDEN MEYER: Well, there’s several things that are going on, Amy. One, we are opening the statement that was issued last week to signature by the general scientific community, engineering community, medical community and then the week since it was issued without much effort on our part, there has been over 1,000 scientists that have signed on to the statement via our website. We will be taking that out systematically to associations and networks of scientists and doctors and engineers around the country to try to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the concern about this process. Of course, we are continuing to investigate and pursue leads to document additional examples of abuse. I should say this is not just a pattern at individual agencies. There’s actually a proposal that’s been made by the Office of Management and Budget to centralize control over the peer review process at federal agencies across the government. And in a rather Orwellian twist on conflict of interest, their proposed rule would ban most independent academic scientists who may receive funding or government grants for the research from federal agencies from — in most cases serving on independent peer review panels on scientific and technical studies, but would permit scientists whose funding is from the industries regulated by the agencies to serve as peer reviewers, as long as they did not have a direct personal financial conflict of interest. So it sort of turns the notion of special interest on its head. So that’s another process we are following quite actively, and trying to encourage the OMB to drop this proposed rule. We’re also talking with people up on Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans. There’s obviously broad concern about this problem. We’re trying to get the relevant committees up there to do their own investigations, hold some oversight hearings, and consider the need for either legislation or rule makings that would put some guidelines in place to prevent this kind of abuse from happening in the future. That would include looking at conflict of interest rules. That could include recreating some kind of independent scientific advisory capacity within the Congress itself, such as it had before, the Office of Technology Assessment was disbanded in 1995. It could include reviewing the Federal Advisory Committee Act guidelines for appointments to independent scientific advisory committees across the government. There’s a host of areas that we think Congress ought to look at and consider the need for action to prevent these abuses in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: The Union of Concerned Scientists’ website is —


AMY GOODMAN: Alden Meyer, with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Thanks for being with us.

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