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This year I was asked to blind-review a paper which showed a map of China in the disputed Nine-Dash Line borders. I have seen the Nature Editorial from 2011 which discusses and criticizes this phenomenon (and suggests that there is a directive from the Chinese government to show the Nine-Dash line). The map in question showed graphically the values of a certain measured quantity for each of China's provinces. It may be of little surprise that the coloring does not reproduce very well for the tiny disputed islands. But this kind of display does give a reason to show borders.

Is it appropriate to insert a comment to this effect in a referee report, or can editors be assumed to be well aware of this issue already (or even be annoyed about an unnecessary reminder which may suggest, though not fairly so in many cases, a biased referee)?

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    Some journals/publishers may have a disclaimer on this matter. For example, "Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations". If your journal has a similar disclaimer, the editor may have a reason not to do anything about it.
    – sl1129
    Jul 22, 2018 at 21:31
  • "at 1"? what do you mean by that? Jul 23, 2018 at 3:27
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    Are you refereeing a paper on Biology (as alluded by the reference to Nature)? Or is it politics/history/international relations? That definitely has bearing on the answer. Also why does the paper even have a map of that area of the world? If it's not for a political reason - perhaps political borders are inappropriate altogether?
    – einpoklum
    Jul 23, 2018 at 13:34
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    @einpoklum: The map in question showed graphically the values of a certain measured quantity for each of China's provinces. It may be of little surprise that the coloring does not reproduce very well for the tiny disputed islands. But this kind of display does give a reason to show borders. This is essentially the reason given in the comments on the answer supplied. Jul 23, 2018 at 22:18
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    @ChristianRau: Ahhh. Hmmm. Yes, now I see your dilemma. I'd put this last comment in the question actually to flesh out the scenario.
    – einpoklum
    Jul 23, 2018 at 22:25

1 Answer 1

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Definitely point this out. The whole point of soliciting a review is to identify issues in the paper. You should not assume the editor knows the map on page 7 is inappropriate, just like you shouldn’t assume they are aware that step 5 of the methodology is unsound. The editor may choose to ignore your comment, but that is up to them. They should not be annoyed by a legitimate comment like this.

There is no justification for using scientific articles to advance territorial claims. If a political map is included, it should be clear when borders are disputed -- it's factually inaccurate to only present one claim. And one also questions why a political map is needed in the paper.

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    I would agree with pointing the matter out. Having not heard of the "Nine-Dash Line" dispute before, my first reaction on reading the Nature article linked in the question was to wonder how many uses of a map including it are actually intended to be "political statements"? From within China (which is where I assume the paper comes from) it may be difficult to get a copy of a map without the line (or dangerous to use such a map).
    – TripeHound
    Jul 22, 2018 at 22:30
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    "Unless the paper is about politics, there is no need to include a political map." I disagree, and I have used country boundaries when showing purely natural phenomena without anybody commenting. Political boundaries offer a familiar point of reference for people to orient themselves and identify features. It's usually necessary to present geographic data in a clear and concise manner. Look at Google Maps, it shows countries in satellite view.
    – user71659
    Jul 22, 2018 at 23:53
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    @user71659: Likewise, national boundaries could be important in many contexts that aren't explicitly political. Say you have data on widget ownership rates by country. You might like to illustrate it with a map where countries are colored differently according to widget ownership rates. So you need to show national borders, and you have to put them somewhere... Jul 23, 2018 at 6:03
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    (And for that matter, if one of your survey respondents lived in the disputed area, which country do you count them towards?) Jul 23, 2018 at 6:08
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    @NateEldredge Use some common sense. If the area is currently heavily militarized in order to assert territorial claims, it’s disputed. The Jacobite succession can probably be ignored.
    – Thomas
    Jul 23, 2018 at 16:46

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