Ukrainian researchers pressure journals to boycott Russian authors

Moscow: Russian scientists are excluded from international collaborations.Credit: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg/Getty

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many research organizations quickly cut funding and collaboration ties with Russia. But the moves have sparked a debate over whether Russian scientists should be able to publish in international journals. Some argue that a boycott is morally correct and could help end the war, but many newspapers argue that indiscriminately isolating Russian scientists would do more harm than good. This week, Russian authorities appear to have responded to boycott threats by saying they plan to drop the requirement for government-funded scientists to publish in recognized foreign journals. The move could further harm the country’s science, according to some Russian researchers.

Ukrainian scientists have made the strongest calls to ban Russian researchers from publishing journals. “Russian scientists have no moral right to relay messages to the global scientific community,” Olesia Vashchuk, head of the Ukrainian Council of Young Scientists at the Ministry of Education and Science, said in two letters dated March 1. The letters, addressed to publisher Elsevier and citation database Clarivate, call for Russian journals to be removed from databases and for Russian scientists to be removed from journal editorial boards.

Those who oppose a ban — in Russia and elsewhere — say it would penalize scientists who oppose their government’s actions, and that science can act as a diplomatic channel. “You have to wonder what this will accomplish. Is it to send a signal? If so, there are better ways,” says Richard Sever, co-founder of bioRxiv and medRxiv preprint servers.

University exchange

Few journals have so far banned Russian scientists. Titles including Nature and Science condemned Russia’s actions in editorials, but also spoke out against the indiscriminate isolation of its scientists. In its March 4 editorial, Nature said a publication boycott against researchers in Russia would “divide the global research community and restrict the exchange of scholarly knowledge”.

At least one title, the Journal of Molecular Structure, published by Elsevier, said it would no longer consider manuscripts written by scientists from Russian institutions. The invasion violates international law, says Rui Fausto, the paper’s editor and chemist at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. “Our decision will be in effect until international legality is restored.” He adds: “It is not addressed to Russian scientists, who certainly deserve all our esteem and respect, but to Russian institutions.”

Elsevier said Nature that he could not give a figure on the number of his journals that had adopted a similar position, but that it was “very low”. The publisher has not introduced restrictions on the acceptance of articles that include Russian authors. “We won’t apply our preferred approach if individual publishers are very committed to it,” Elsevier said.

In contrast, in response to the Russian invasion, Clarivate, which runs the Web of Science citation database, announced on March 11 that it would cease all business activity in Russia and immediately close an office there. He previously suspended the review of any new journals from Russia and Belarus – which supported Russia’s war – that seek inclusion in the Web of Science. Lisa Hulme, global head of external communications for Clarivate, said she was engaging with Ukraine’s science minister.

Ukrainian scientists welcome such measures. “[By] rejecting manuscripts written by Russian authors and excluding Russian journals from Scopus and Web of Science, Elsevier and Clarivate can contribute to ending this war,” says Myroslava Hladchenko, who studies higher education policy at the University National Life and Environmental Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv. Hladchenko says Russia has bombed more than 60 educational institutions in Ukraine, highlighting their “attitude towards science and education”.

Policy change

Many researchers in Russia have spoken out against a boycott of the publications. Most academics who strive to be part of the global scientific community oppose the war, says a political scientist at a Russian university who asked not to be named out of fear for their safety. “Many take personal risks to protest,” says the researcher, who says he narrowly escaped arrest during an anti-war demonstration. A blanket refusal to review and publish manuscripts “will have no impact on Kremlin policy,” they say.

But Hladchenko says she thinks Russian scientists should do more to stop the war. The exclusion of Russian authors and journals will force these scholars to “reassess their activity and contribute to the development of civil society in their own country”, she says.

For its part, Russia seems to have responded to its growing isolation by the international community. On March 7, the office of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernychenko announced plans to rescind existing requirements for scientists to publish in journals indexed in Web of Science or Scopus, according to Russian reports. Institutions in Russia currently receive a higher rating if their scientists publish in foreign journals, and researchers who receive grants from the Russian Science Foundation and other government programs must publish their results in indexed journals. Chernyshenko also asked the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education to set up its own research evaluation system.

The move could harm Russian science, say some researchers. Publication requirements in international journals have helped stimulate top research groups and improve the quality of research in Russia, says Andrey Kulbachinskiy, a molecular geneticist at the Moscow Institute of Molecular Genetics. Kulbachinskiy fears that Russian scientists will soon be banned from publishing in international journals. Kulbachinskiy, speaking on a personal basis, said that while removing these requirements may relieve the pressure to post for many groups, he said, it would likely lead to a “rapid decline in the quality of posts”. It will “make doing science senseless”.

Yuri Kovalev, an astrophysicist at the Lebedev Institute of Physics in Moscow, fears that following the imposition of financial sanctions, Russians will soon find it difficult to pay for goods and services. This could prevent institutions from paying article processing fees or journal subscriptions, he says. “I guess we’ll be using arXiv and Sci-Hub,” he says.