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.”

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