In March of 2017, Nature starting adding a strange note to every single paper. Why?

Back in March of 2017, this strange note first appeared at the end of a paper in the journal Nature:

I looked over the paper, and it didn’t have any maps in it. None of the authors had unusual affiliations, just the normal university departments. Why the disclaimer?

Before answering this question, let’s dig a bit deeper. This notice first started appearing in mid-March of 2017 (in this issue of Nature), when it was attached to every single research paper in that issue. I cannot find any papers prior to that with the “Publisher’s note.”

Ever since then, Nature has put this notice on every paper in all of their journals. For example, the current issue has a paper on mapping sound on the planet Mars, by an international team of astronomers and physicists. It does contain maps, but they don’t describe any features on Earth. Nonetheless, it has the disclaimer at the end about “jurisdictional claims in published maps.”

A map showing Taiwan as a country

(Nature has done it to me too, for example in this 2018 paper led by a former Ph.D. student of mine. I didn’t yet know about the weird disclaimer when that paper appeared, and I didn’t catch it until later.)

It’s not just Nature, but apparently all of the many journals published by the Nature Publishing Group, which today number in excess of 100 publications. I looked at a few randomly chosen papers in Nature Biotechnology and Cancer Gene Therapy, as a test, and they all have exactly the same Publisher’s Note.

None of these papers, I should add, have any maps in them. I couldn’t find anything odd about the institutional affiliations either.

Nature is one of the oldest and most-respected journals in all of science, dating back to 1869. Just a few years ago, in 2015, Nature’s publishing group merged with Springer, the second-largest for-profit scientific publisher in the world, and they changed their name to Springer Nature. We’ll see why this is relevant in a minute.

I should also mention that the papers appearing in these journals, especially Nature itself, are rigorously peer-reviewed. Any map that appears undergoes the same peer review. The reviewers also see all the authors’ institutional affiliations. Normally, the publisher has no say over any of this content: if it passes peer review, it’s published.

So what happened? Springer Nature, it seems, added this note because of pressure from the Chinese government. The Chinese government doesn’t want any maps to show Taiwan, and it doesn’t want any affiliations from scientists in Taiwan unless they show (incorrectly) that Taiwan is part of China.

I admit that I’m speculating, but we have very clear evidence that SpringerNature has succumbed to Chinese demands on related matters. In late 2017, the New York Times reported that Springer was “bowing to pressure from the Chinese government to block access to hundreds of articles on its Chinese website.” According to the Times, Springer removed articles on topics that the Chinese objected to, including Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, and Chinese politics. A Springer spokesperson at the time admitted that they’d removed many articles, but said they did it “to prevent a much greater impact on our customers and authors.” Their argument was that it was better to get at least some of their journals to Chinese scientists, even if others were censored.

More recently, in late 2020 a doctor from Taiwan was told that she needed to add “China” to her national affiliation or else her paper would be rejected from another journal, Eye and Vision, published by Springer Nature. Springer stated at the time that it does not require authors to change their country of origin, but that Eye and Vision was co-published by a Chinese university, and therefore operated under different editorial rules. I looked up this doctor’s affiliation in other journals, and saw that it was listed as “National Taiwan University College of Medicine, Taipei, Taiwan.”

So apparently Springer Nature doesn’t have a problem with modifying its publishing practices to accommodate the demands of the Chinese Communist Party. However, what they’ve done in this case–with their Publisher’s note–is to add a statement to the text of every single paper published by their journals, the vast majority of which have nothing whatsoever to do with China.

Finally, I should add that no other journal publisher adds a Publisher’s Note like this to scientists’ papers. So any claim by Springer Nature that they need to do so is, frankly, nonsense. They don’t. They appear to have added the notice to appease the Chinese government, and it’s not the first time they have done so.

I don’t expect scientists to stop publishing in Nature or any of the 100-plus Nature journals. However, I hope that others can speak up and let Nature’s editors know that they won’t accept having this disclaimer added to their papers. I certainly will.

Oh, and one last thing: for all scientists funded by NIH, every paper must be deposited in the public archive PubMedCentral, where all of the content is free and unrestricted. PMC doesn’t include this bizarre publisher’s note! So I highly recommend that everyone use the PMC link, rather than the link to the Nature website, when you share your papers with others.

UPDATE: An editor at Springer Nature responded to this article (to the Forbes version, which has identical content), writing to me that the Publisher’s note was not introduced in response to pressure from China or from any other government. He explained “that there are many territorial disputes all around the world and we do not believe that it is our place as a publisher to adjudicate these disputes. [...] We add the disclaimer to try to explain this position to our readers, some of whom do, from time to time, petition us to revise the works of our authors to conform to one or another political position on a given territorial claim.”

Zoom classes are a disaster for colleges. It's time to bring all students back into the classroom.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, in March of 2020, colleges everywhere (including Johns Hopkins University, where I teach and conduct research) shut down and sent everyone home. Within two weeks, we switched all of our classes to Zoom.

It was a remarkable pivot, and necessary at the time. But we’re now more than two years into the pandemic, and many colleges and universities are still holding classes on Zoom, or offering a Zoom option for students who want it.

This has become, to put it bluntly, a disaster for students.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy article in April that surveyed faculty all over the country. It paints a grim picture: students are reporting mental health problems in record numbers, grades are low, and attendance is even lower. Depression is widespread. College life, it seems, is not good.

Most universities returned to in-person classes this past fall, and some returned in person as early as the fall of 2020. All of them instituted systems to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks, including regular PCR testing, required quarantines for anyone who was positive, and (most important of all) required vaccinations.

These precautions generally worked: we saw very few serious outbreaks of Covid-19 on college campuses, and even fewer serious illnesses. College students, I should note, are at very low risk for serious illness, based on their age.

Unfortunately, all of these precautions sent a loud message to students: you’re in danger! Quarantine, hibernate, stay away from other people!

And now some of them don’t want to come back.

At many universities, the strategy for returning to campus has included a combination of hybrid and in-person classes. Some schools had students return and held all classes over Zoom, at least for the first semester or two. Others held smaller classes in person, and large lectures were delivered by Zoom. Many colleges (mine included) required professors to record all lectures, even if students were there in person.

These strategies continued right through the current semester. Zoom recordings were available to anyone, in part to ensure that students who caught the virus would still be able to keep up with classes.

That sounded fair enough, but it hasn’t worked out well at all. It turns out that – surprise! – 19-year-olds don’t always make the wisest decisions about how to manage their time.

For example, if you give them the choice between (A) get dressed, walk across campus, and sit in a classroom for an hour to listen to a professor’s lecture, or (B) stay in your dorm room and veg out, and (maybe) watch the Zoom recording of the lecture later–they usually choose B!

Attendance at in-person classes is shocking low, across the country. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, in one large biology class of 120 students, only 20-30 showed up in person, and only one or two watched the video. According to the Chronicle’s survey, “far fewer students show up to class. Those who do avoid speaking when possible. Many skip the readings or the homework. They struggle on tests.

Not only that, but students almost never watch those Zoom recordings. They think they will go back and watch the video, but the little data that we have shows that they don’t. Remember, these are 19- and 20-year olds.

Fortunately, there’s a way to fix this. Universities need to remember that we’re in the business of educating students, and we can’t just ask the students what they want and then give it to them. They need guidance on how to get educated.

We need to tell our students what to do. That means we need to stop offering them recordings that they can “catch up on later,” because they just won’t do that. Sure, they will grumble if they have to get out of bed and go to class, but what teenager doesn’t?

And here’s one of the things we need to tell them: if you’re a student, you are required to attend class, in person. But what if they are sick? Well, we’ve had ways to deal with that forever, and we simply need to return to those ways. Students can miss a class, maybe two, and get notes from others or meet one-on-one with the professor to find out what they missed. This happens occasionally, and we can manage it.

One thing I’ve realized during these pandemic classes is that no combination of homework and tests will ensure that a student has learned everything in the classes and in the readings for a course. So to those students who say “look, I did well on all the assignments and passed the final, so isn’t that enough?” I answer no, it’s not.

A college class is more than just the sum of the grades on the assignments. Being in class with other students is a critical part of the educational experience: it enables countless unplanned interactions, both social and intellectual, that make college much, much more than just watching a bunch of lectures on Zoom and doing the assignments.

And, as many of my fellow professors have pointed out, it affects us too: lecturing to a room full of young people is a far different experience from lecturing to screen, no matter how many people are on the other side of that screen. “Teaching to me is like a live performance,” one of my colleagues told me, “and the audience interaction (even non-verbal feedback) affects that.”

Of course traditional lectures aren’t the perfect way to deliver an education. I know that college classes could benefit from all sorts of innovations, such as “flipped” classrooms and more hands-on experiences. But classes as we’ve been teaching them are pretty darned good, and they’re a heckuva lot better than staring at a screen in the loneliness of a dorm room. For their own good, and for ours, we need to bring all our students back to class.