The past week has seen a sudden and serious decoupling of the West from Russia as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Across multiple sectors – political, financial, technical, and commercial – swift actions were taken to terminate partnerships with Russian organizations and cease collaborative projects. Sharp statements of rebuke accompanied the severing of ties, with no suggestion that compromise would be considered. A new Cold War atmosphere took hold in Europe with shocking suddenness, accompanied by a hope that military conflict does not spread any further. Today, we discuss this decoupling in the contexts of research collaboration, scientific exchange, and scholarly communication.
Global Science and Soft Power
Until very recently, the default science policy for many of the world’s democracies has been one of scientific openness and global cooperation. While this has been tested by developments in recent years, openness has continued to be the basic principle, as one of us (Roger) wrote about recently.
Partnerships, shared programs, expert exchanges, and the like are considered “soft power” tools of diplomacy and foreign policy. Soft power approaches seek to influence and persuade through pursuit of mutual interests and opportunities for social, cultural, and political exchange. Soft power approaches are often contrasted with “hard power” approaches, which seek to coerce through force, threats, and sanctions.
In recent years, there has been some pressure arising against scientific openness, mostly as a result of concerns among the democracies about a lack of reciprocity from China. These concerns accelerated during the pandemic, accompanied by efforts to address economic interdependence through greater supply chain resilience and other measures. But the default baseline policy has remained one characterized by international partnerships, scientific openness, and global scholarly communication.
In light of historical precedent, the speed at which scientific decoupling from Russia has emerged is notable and surprising. Of course, this comes in the context of sanctions against Russian leaders and elites, efforts to close the global banking system to Russia, restrictions on Russian airlines, and the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine among other actions. Early indicators suggest that at least some western countries, particularly Germany, are moving quickly for scientific decoupling as well.
On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, the German government directed universities to freeze scientific relations with Russia. The next day the Allianz der Wissenschaftsorganisationen (Alliance of Science Organizations) issued a statement of support for the government directive, saying that “it is recommended that scientific cooperation with state institutions and commercial enterprises in Russia be frozen with immediate effect until further notice, that German research funds no longer benefit Russia, and that no joint scientific and research policy events take place. New cooperation projects should not be initiated at present” (English translation by DeepL). The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation), which has a long-standing relationship with Russia, including a collaborative program with the Russian Science Foundation and an office in Moscow, is a member of the alliance. Yesterday, Denmark’s Ministry of Education and Research has issued a similar recommendation to end research collaborations with both Russia and Belarus.
The day after the invasion, MIT terminated a decade-old partnership with Russia’s Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology “in light of the unacceptable military actions against Ukraine by the Russian government.” MIT contributed to the founding of the university and has assisted with recruitment, scholarly exchanges, and collaborative research projects.
Germany is also pressuring the European Union to cut scientific ties with Russia and for member states to do the same. Christian Ehler, German member of the European Parliament, has called for the termination of the science and technology cooperation agreement between the European Community and the Government of the Russian Federation and related activities; ending of payments to Russian participants in Horizon 2020 and terminating the participation of Russian entities in the program; and termination of the Russian Federation in any international scientific or research project of which the Union or Member States are part, including ITER and CERN, among other demands.
Questions are also arising about potential impacts on specific international collaborations. As one example, the European Space Agency is monitoring the International Space Station collaboration and NASA is preparing contingency plans for a possible Russian pull-out. There is a very personal element to this project as astronauts and cosmonauts from multiple countries, including Russia and Germany, are living on station and must work together closely, just as was the case during the tensions when Russia annexed Crimea. Related, responding to EU sanctions, Russia has announced withdrawal of its personnel and halting cooperation with Europe on Soyuz launches from French Guiana and the European Space Agency says that ExoMars is now “very unlikely” to launch this year.
Another area of collaboration at risk of fraying is the research portfolio of the Arctic nations and the implications for climate change research. In an interview with the CBC, Robert Huebert, an associate professor at the University of Calgary, explained: “A lot of our understanding of climate change comes from the co-operative sharing of information and science with the Russians within the context of the Arctic Council.” In addition, Huebert continued, “We have search and rescue treaties. We have a whole host of very meaningful steps. Those, I’m afraid, are all either going to be frozen or rendered irrelevant.”
Implications for Scholarly Communication
As scientific and research collaborations with Russia begin to freeze, there will be implications for scholarly communication. Scientific publishing has globalized substantially in recent decades, the natural product of underlying principles of scientific openness in combination with digital and network technologies for information distribution. The largest players operate distributed multinational corporations. Nonetheless, it is hard to see long-term stability in the idea that a scholarly manuscript produced in one part of the world should be readable — and often freely so — by scholars in adversary nations, let alone those working in military or dual-use fields. Geowalling proposals have been floated before to address lack of reciprocity in openness and would potentially take on new attractiveness in the kind of Cold War climate that has emerged. If decoupling takes hold more deeply, impacts on the scholarly communication system are inevitable.
In this time of fast-paced renunciations of value systems and principles that had seemed enduring, we are tracking a number of issues of strategic importance to scholarly communication and publishing:
- Will western publishers and service providers give in to pressure to de-platform Russian scholars and divest themselves of Russian publications?
- Will Russian editors and editorial board members be removed from their roles?
- Will western scholars withhold their manuscripts and labor from Russian publications?
- Will individual researchers heed the direct appeal from National Research Foundation of Ukraine for “immediate severance of all your ties with Russian scientific structures”?
- Will western publications, especially on sensitive and dual-use topics, continue to be made widely available online, including through open access?
- Will industry partnerships among western and Russian publishers, such as the collaboration between Pleiades Publishing and Springer Nature, whose corporate headquarters are in Berlin, be preserved?
- Will rankings and other recognition and rewards schemes be adjusted to de-prioritize or remove Russian institutions and scholars?
- How will payments from Russian universities to publishers for subscriptions and/or APCs be effected in light of the financial decoupling that has occurred, including, for example, the removal of Russia from SWIFT? If Russian institutions are unable to pay for resources and services, will publishers stop providing access to content and reject manuscripts for lack of APCs — or will they elect to provide access to publications and publishing services without charge?
- And, how will economic and other governmental sanctions impact on the decisions publishers are able to make? In past cases of US sanctions against Iran, Elsevier put in place guidance about who could handle certain manuscripts and PLOS wrote off unpaid invoices.
Finally, we note that many of these questions will be answered not only by publisher policy but also, in some cases, by editors and editorial boards implementing their own practices for specific journals. This has already happened with Elsevier’s Journal of Molecular Structure, with the editor in chief explaining the rejection of a manuscript with an author from a Russian institution saying that “this is not a general policy of Elsevier.” An Elsevier representative confirmed that “At this time, we don’t have restrictions on accepting submissions for papers that include Russian authors.”
Similar questions might be asked about libraries and how they will approach Russian publications. Will western libraries choose to continue to collect Russian materials and subscribe to Russian journals? Will Russia and/or western powers allow them to do so? Will existing staff exchanges and organizational collaborations continue? And, what about APC payments to or the inclusion of Russian journals in transformative agreements in light of the barriers now existing to making payments to Russian publishers?
Finally, might decoupling somehow place greater pressure on Sci-Hub, which is domiciled in Russia? There are scenarios in which greater Internet controls are put into place, with corollary impacts on Sci-Hub, but little evidence so far to suggest this will take place. Additionally, one might also wonder if there will be any greater individual qualms about using a service that has been said to have connections with Russian intelligence services?
As mentioned above, the scientific decoupling we are seeing currently is notable and somewhat surprising. It is also a cause for some concern. Scientific diplomacy is a long-standing soft power element of foreign policy. Even in times of significant conflict, scientific exchange has continued apace, a kind of silent back channel buoyed by commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and the common good, that facilitates the re-establishment of relationships post-conflict.
Some are publicly questioning the strategy of cutting off scientific relations with researchers and institutions. For example, Kurt Deketelaere, secretary general of the League of European Research Universities, is quoted as saying he has “No idea why we would punish innocent universities and academics for the stupid acts of their government.” This sentiment of concern for harm to individual researchers and scholarly institutions is echoed by many and is mentioned as a foreseen impact even by those who are cutting ties.
Ehler himself acknowledged that the decision to decouple is a serious one. He concludes his demand that the European Union sever ties with the statement that “cutting all scientific and research ties should be the very last resort in international conflict.”
Future Prospects for Scientific Diplomacy
The hope of these decouplings is presumably that these actions have an effect on the immediate course of events, which might allow for a return to more collegial relationships in the future. But, there is also, sadly, a possibility that decoupling continues and deepens for the long term.
Russia’s behavior has overtaken forecasts. And, it is certainly outside our competency to fully forecast what the coming days and weeks may bring. Regardless, there is a strong likelihood that relations between Russia and the West will take years, if not decades, to recover. Some observers are talking about a wait for regime change in Russia, which could be a very long wait indeed. In the perhaps less likely scenario that Russia reforms quickly, re-establishing trust, partnerships, and investments is a longer road to travel.
Until now, scholars have felt relatively confident that scientific openness would prevail even in times of great conflict and that collaborative relationships would be prized such that they would be rewarded for creating and maintaining them. Individual researchers’ willingness to invest time and effort into future collaborations may be limited by having seen them upended by this current decoupling that has disrupted their work or even brought to a complete halt.
Similarly, up until now, publishers have invested with the expectation of global reach and commensurate returns. Wiley’s acquisition of Hindawi surprised some observers precisely because of Hindawi’s substantial revenue dependency on China. Seeing how quickly a freeze can begin to fall over global science, we may wonder if valuations of such investments will be discounted for geopolitical risk any differently in the future.
And, indeed, the decoupling from Russia will raise questions about other potential decouplings. Though Deketelaere observed that “We did not stop cooperation with China when they, against all rules and agreements, reintegrated Hong Kong, or when they continue to violate Taiwan’s airspace,” it is not hard to imagine that – now that the tide has turned from past practice of maintaining scientific openness – scientific decoupling could become a more common strategy.