For U.S. publishers, changing so much as a comma in an author's work can be more than a delicate process. It can be criminal -- punishable by fines of up to a half-million dollars or jail terms as long as 10 years.
In a move that pits national security concerns against academic freedom and the international flow of information, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control recently declared that American publishers cannot edit works authored in nations under trade embargoes. Although publishing the articles is legal, editing is a "service" and it is illegal to perform services for embargoed nations, the agency has ruled.
This week, one publisher decided to challenge the government and risk criminal prosecution by editing articles submitted from the five embargoed nations: Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya and Cuba.
"I decided that the risks of damaging our publishing program now outweighed the risks of being in violation of the law," said Robert Bovenschulte, president of the American Chemical Society's publications division. The society publishes more than 24,000 articles each year in its scientific journals, and 60% are submitted from foreign nations, Bovenschulte said. It received 195 articles from Iranian scholars last year and published 60 of them.
"By not publishing articles coming from the five countries under trade embargo, we were, in effect, in violation of our own ethical guidelines that say that the basis for deciding what to publish is the quality of the science in the material and excludes the national origin of that material," Bovenschulte said. If the government decides to prosecute, he said, "I think we are going to be in good company."
Other publishers are following the letter of the law.
"We are an ethical operation," said Michael Lightner, vice president for publications of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "We operate under the laws of the countries in which we do business."
His journals will publish articles from embargo countries in unedited form.
The different responses reflect the confusion and anxiety in academic circles over the government's new interpretation of the law. Some have denounced the Treasury policy, issued Sept. 30, as a violation of a 1988 legislative amendment that barred the president from restricting the flow of informational material from embargoed nations. Several groups have appealed to President Bush's science advisor, John H. Marburger III.
Under the regulations, said Allan Adler, vice president for legal and governmental affairs at the Assn. of American Publishers, "if a publisher is trying to make a deal with an Iranian author about publication of a manuscript that is not completed, anything the publisher would do that would alter that manuscript would be prohibited and would require a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control." The result, said Adler, is a "chilling effect" on publishers.
In a statement issued Friday in response to questions from the Los Angeles Times, Marburger, Bush's science advisor, indicated unease with the regulations. Marburger said he supports "the use of economic sanctions against state sponsors of terrorism." But he added, "I'm concerned about the impact interpretations of such sanctions may have on scientific publishing and, therefore, scientific openness. We are working on this issue and hope to achieve a satisfactory resolution."
While they wait for possible action, organizations are struggling to decide what to do.
Recently, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which has some 360,000 members worldwide, applied for a license from the Office of Foreign Assets Control that would allow it to edit pieces by authors from embargoed nations.
Richard Newcomb, director of the office, said that request is being reviewed.
Newcomb said the office does not see its ruling as involving 1st Amendment rights or inhibiting academic exchanges. Rather, he said, the regulations are a technical interpretation of how Congress intended embargoes to be enforced.
"This was a straight-up ruling" issued after the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers asked his office to interpret the law, said Newcomb.
The institute raised the issue with the Treasury Department in 2001 after a bank refused to transfer money from the organization to a bank in Tehran for an engineering conference.
"They were taking in manuscripts and substantially doing things to them. These are fine people who wanted to get our opinion," Newcomb said. "We do have jurisdiction over this; it is not exempt [from the embargoes]; it is something we can regulate."
But the notion that publishing articles does not involve editing them is mind-boggling to many in the business.
"We were really stunned to find out this was a legal issue," said Bovenschulte of the American Chemical Society.
"Faculty members have to publish the results of their research to be known, to be promoted," said Fredun Hojabri, an Iranian-born chemist living in San Diego who is president of the Sharif University of Technology Assn., a global organization of graduates and faculty of the Tehran university. "And there are more than 1,000 engineering graduate students who must publish the results of their research to graduate."