Top academic publisher Springer Nature has once more sparked concerns over its censorship of topics regarded as politically sensitive by Beijing.
A Taiwanese doctor, Wu Jo-hsuan, recently reported via Facebook that she had been asked by the editorial team at Eye and Vision, a medical journal published by the group, to add the word "China" after "Taiwan" in her paper, or have her article rejected for publication.
Editors at Eye and Vision wrote to Wu telling her that the change was required under the journal's editorial policies.
Wu is the first author of the paper on retinopathy with her mentor at National Taiwan University, and said she was shocked by the level of political censorship she encountered.
She told RFA in a recent interview that she and her colleague have now decided to find another publisher.
"We're not planning to get back to them," she said. "We thought we'd look for another journal that is a bit more friendly."
Catherine Chou, assistant professor of history at Grinnell College, said such problems aren't uncommon for academics from Taiwan, a democratic island that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the People's Republic of China.
"This highlights the plight of Taiwanese scholars, who are forced to make choices in their professional careers between an honest account of their national identity and academic opportunities," Chou told RFA.
RFA contacted Springer Nature to ask whether there are indeed editorial restrictions on the use of "Taiwan" as a nationality for an author.
In a written reply dated Aug. 25, the publisher said it wouldn't put pressure on authors to change the name of their country of origin.
It said the policy stemmed instead from Eye and Vision, which it publishes in partnership with Wenzhou Medical University in China, and operates under a separate set of editorial guidelines.
Springer Nature said its relationship with Eye and Vision was simply that of "co-publisher."
Springer Nature is the world's largest academic publisher, publishing more than 3,000 journals including Nature and the Scientific American.
Politically sensitive articles blocked
However, this isn't the first time that the publisher has been linked to Chinese censorship.
In November 2017, Springer Nature confirmed that it had blocked access to some 1,000 journal articles to Chinese internet users because they contained banned keywords relating to political topics such as Tibet, Taiwan, or the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Requests to Eye and Vision and the eye hospital linked to the Wenzhou Medical University for comment had met with no response by the time of writing.
The eye hospital's official website describes Eye and Vision as "an international English-language journal under the aegis of Wenzhou Medical University."
Launched in October 2014, it is edited by Qu Jia, director of the eye hospital, and receives funding from the ruling Chinese Communist Party to boost China's international influence.
The program is jointly implemented by the government-backed Chinese Association for Science and Technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, as well as the ministries of finance and education, and the state media regulator — the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).
The initiative is part of a long-running policy under Communist Party general secretary Xi Jinping to "take Chinese technology and culture global."
In November 2019, France-based scientific publisher EDP Sciences was acquired by a holding company under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China Science Publishing & Media, or Science Press.
State news agency Xinhua reported at the time that this was "an important step in China Science's internationalization strategy."
Wen Liu, assistant research fellow at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, said China's acquisition of such publishers is a serious threat to international academic freedom.
"China's overseas acquisitions program targeting international academic journals, as well as its censorship of researchers' institutional identities and the content of papers is a serious violation of the principle of academic freedom," Liu told RFA.
She said she was also asked in August 2020 not to include the word "Taiwan" in her byline in a psychology paper for a SAGE journal.
She said her two authors from the United States and South Africa experienced no such restriction.
Austin Wang, assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said some Taiwanese scholars have had their country of origin changed to "China" or editorial changes suggested that describe Taiwan as a "province of China."
"Sometimes you can appeal to the editor to reject the proposed modification, but sometimes you get rejected by the journal because of this," Wang told RFA.
"This is quite common, so complaints need to be loud enough to force journals to change," he said.
Controlling the global narrative
Jessica Drun, a guest researcher at the Washington think tank Project 2049 Institute, said China's censorship of Taiwan scholars also relates to Beijing's policy of extending its official narratives far beyond its borders.
"This isn't just about Taiwan, but also China's attempt to control the global narrative and shape it into a view that is more in line with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party," Drun said.
She said China's growing influence at the World Health Organization (WHO) was also a case in point.
People working in all fields should be aware that the price of Chinese political censorship entering the scientific domain doesn't just stop Taiwanese academics from making a contribution: it runs counter to global public health interests, she warned.
Taiwan was ruled as a Japanese colony in the 50 years prior to the end of World War II, before being occupied by the Kuomintang (KMT)'s 1911 Republic of China as part of Tokyo's post-war reparation deal with the allies. It remains a sovereign state using the name Republic of China.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of President Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in a Jan. 2, 2019 speech that Taiwan must be "unified" with China. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) echoed the sentiment in a military white paper later that year.
But Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen has repeatedly responded that Taiwan's 23 million population have no wish to give up their sovereignty, or democratic way of life.
Reported by Jane Tang for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.