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I recently accepted a paper review based on an abstract.

On seeing the paper, at least one of the authors has listed their address as being within an unrecognized annexed territory, like this:

Author, X university, /annexed territory/, /annexing state/

I am interested in the community views on whether this is reason to decline the review. And, if so, should the reason be declared.

At the moment, I intend to decline as I do not wish to legitimize the annexation in any way. On the other hand, I also do not wish to discriminate against individual researchers.

How much should the decision depend on:

  • the perceived quality of work?
  • personal links?
  • time since/extent of violence during annexation?

Can anyone offer a good framework for thinking about this?


Points of clarification:

  • The authors do not use the term "annex", "annexed", or "annexing".
  • It is widely considered an illegitimate annexation (shared with a majority of world states, UN)
  • The annexing state is not required for geographical location/postal address (if anything makes it more confusing).
  • I do not wish to act in a way that can be perceived as "activism", or to "create a stink"...
  • My argument is that adding to the record with the annexing state included helps (albeit in a very minor way) its potential path to legitimacy. Please do rebut...

"Annexing" might not be the correct term in this case, perhaps "occupying" is more accurate, I'm not sure - I think the general point of the question stands either way...

It might be helpful to reference what policies journals typically have on this?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Jan 17 at 14:59
  • I understand you act as "reviewer", not as "editor", right? Within this role you are assumed to pass on possible concerns to the editor, but not to take final decisions. Therefore, I would communicate your observation to the editor, leaving any decision to his/her discretion, and focus on the science in your report. – bmf Jan 17 at 15:30
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    This is why we need double blind peer review. – 0x60 Jan 17 at 19:36
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Since you ask for a framework for thinking about it, I'll suggest that an action on your part that disadvantages the author, perhaps already a victim, won't bring justice. Probably better to ignore that detail and focus on what the author says, and honestly give the usual feedback.

If you want to try to deal with the unfairness of the annexation, there are other places that would be more appropriate and effective.

But your review is independent of any concept of "legitimization". You are giving a service to an author and a journal, not the occupying country.

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    And the author likely is either (1) being told how to write the address by somebody with some power over them, or (2) is tempting retribution by the annexing authorities by writing it that way. The author is pretty clearly not trying to 'legitimize' anything, really. – Jon Custer Jan 14 at 18:35
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    @JonCuster It depends. The author might be representing the "invaders", and not the "oppressed". (I avoid giving any actual or perceived examples to avoid political debates in this forum.) – Boris Bukh Jan 14 at 22:08
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    @JonCuster: I'm not sure, but I believe that the "Y annexed territory" / "Z annexing state" wording is the OP's description, not the author's. The author likely just listed the territory and the state. (Hat-tip to Ben Crowell's comment above for suggesting this.) – ruakh Jan 15 at 0:49
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    This makes me remember my days at UCLA, Los Angeles, Occupied North Mexico (US Zone), Aztec Nation, Turtle Island. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Jan 15 at 12:21
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    @BorisBukh : you mean that if the author was in the same ethnic group as the "invaders", that would be grounds for declining the review? – vsz Jan 16 at 7:41
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This is a special case of a question about boycotts, but I see nothing in it that is unique to the situation of an academic reviewer as opposed to any other person needing to make a decision about whether to participate in a boycott of some group of people (other perhaps than the fact that a decision to participate will come at zero cost to you in this case). So, if you are looking for a framework for thinking about the situation, this is it.

Now, one thing you should expect people to tell you (I see it already in some of the answers here) is that your boycott could hurt an innocent person who may actually be a supporter of the same political cause you are trying to support with your boycott. That may be true, but is mostly beside the point - all boycotts have this feature, but many are still logical and useful means to peacefully achieve a political end with minimal harm to all parties involved.

Anyway, the decision of what to review is a personal one - I couldn’t even tell you what I personally would do without knowing the identities of X, Y and Z. As for whether to state the reason, if you do that then you effectively become a publicly outspoken political activist. Perhaps you are the kind of person who wants to play such a role - if so, go ahead, but know that this would incur risks to your reputation; there might well be people refusing to review your own papers down the road...

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    I'd argue that a person's calculus for boycotting here would be strongly influenced by academia-specific factors, like his or her views about the international community of academics. – Patrick Sanan Jan 15 at 10:40
  • @PatrickSanan good point! I like your take on the question (and upvoted your answer). Indeed the fact that academic research is a global endeavor can be a valuable factor to take into account. – Dan Romik Jan 15 at 10:50
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I offer this framework:

The international community of academics

Openly published research is a global undertaking, producing results of use to the entire world, and needless to say many academics live and work in countries controlled by political forces they don't support. The assumption when reviewing work which will be published for all to read is that the author is proposing a good-faith contribution to a global human effort, that their published work speaks for itself, and that their physical location shouldn't be relevant in the review process.

These assumptions might be re-examined if you believe that a particular researcher is acting in bad faith or is a vocal supporter or direct beneficiary of political causes that you consider sufficiently unethical.

A sticky point is to what extent you consider, say, receiving a salary at a university to be support for the political forces that control a region at the time. Crucial is how intellectually independent you believe the academy in general, and this researcher in particular, to be. Also related are your views on the ethics of inaction under various political circumstances.

Without further specifics I'd personally suggest to do your due diligence to ensure that this particular author isn't a vocal supporter of the political forces you'd like to boycott, and then proceed with the review as usual, assuming good faith and recognizing the value of the international community.

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Unless the content of the paper is political in nature, I don't see any reason to refuse to review it. The fact that the author works in disputed territory doesn't seem relevant to the worth of the work. Unless there's any extra context, the author's choice - if it is a choice - of how to give their location, seems to me that it could be from either or no political view.

Of course, you are free to refuse to review a paper, but unless you're deliberately boycotting all interaction with academics in a given country or region, this feels like an odd reason to me.

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You don't have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. If you find you don't want to review this paper because of your strong political views on the annexation, by all means decline. It's your personal views after all, and people will generally accept that your politics might differ from theirs.

However, regardless of whether you agree or decline to review, you should alert the editor about this. It's possible the editor is unaware about this, and the editor will almost certainly want to know if his journal is about to publish this kind of political content. If you decline, you can point this out in the "reason for declining" box; if you accept, you can use the "confidential comments to editor" box.

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    Thanks, I find both options slightly uncomfortable, I am now erring on the side of doing the review, but with a private note to the editor, per your suggestion.. – John P. Anon Jan 15 at 17:09
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    The idea of reaching out to the journal that if they publish it they will make a political statement and that they might want to be more nuanced in their statement might be a good idea. – David Mulder Jan 16 at 18:52
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No it's not a valid reason.

You don't know why the author wrote it like that, and nothing says their reason is political. Maybe the person just felt it was more clear like this, maybe some local authorities would give them problems if they wrote otherwise, there could be many reasons.

You are making it political while it is not. Stick to the paper reviewing, this is not the place to take a political stand. Would you feel legitimate to decline if the author was in a religion you don't approve of? No because that's not the place. Your interest should be in the paper's content only.

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You asked about how the community here views things, but you also asked a number of more important things we can't answer. You're answerable to yourself first of all. How much to weigh any of the moral factors you list is really up to you; you have to decide what you, personally, can live with. (It's also doubtful the journal has a specific policy about this.)

Second, any action you take, now that the question has been put to you, is political. The claim that to consider this question is political, and that the integrity of Research supercedes all political considerations, is itself a political statement. A claim you are (implicitly, wrongly) "being political" usually just means the speaker has differently weighted priorities.

Third, the opinions about potential harm to the author seem somewhat overstated. If you feel uncomfortable reviewing this paper, it's certain someone else will do it. You're professionally obligated to referee some papers, not this one specifically.

Finally, as Dan Romik says, what you're considering is de facto a form of boycott and it's easy to find a lot to read about the ethics of boycott tactics. But more particularly, and possibly more usefully, if other people have thought about this particular target, there is quite possibly an organized boycott effort, and one of those tends to come with a statement of principles and a precisely articulated set of criteria delineating what and whom should and shouldn't be boycotted. If you find you agree with the principles, then you might find some guidance that way, and acting as part of a coordinated effort with well-defined procedural guidelines might take off some of the pressure of structureless you seem to be feeling.

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You can decline it as you choose. I would probably not bother to give a reason (will be seen as you making a stink.)

It's probably hard to decide where the exact boundary is to making these decisions also. (What feels right.) After all borders have moved around for thousands of years and usually for reasons of force.

I might lean a little towards doing the review but certainly nothing wrong with not doing it if it makes you uncomfortable. And not just for reasons of annexation but even if you have an antipathy to the other country.

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    So, refusing to review because you assume the author's ethnicity, gender, or religion from the name, and you have antipathy towards that particular ethnicity/gender/religion, would also be OK? – vsz Jan 16 at 9:01
  • @vsz I'm not a fan of this answer, but in fairness I think bigots probably should not place themselves in positions of authority over people against whom they are bigoted; they should probably decline to review, and go work on themselves a little. So all else being equal, "refusing to review" would actually be OK, because the bigotry itself is the part that's not OK. (Of course, I think your point is somewhat orthogonal to the matter at hand anyway.) – Mike Jan 17 at 14:48
  • @Mike I like the vision your comment paints of a kind of “ethical bigot” who will honorably recuse themselves from decision-making affecting people they know they hold bigoted opinions about. It is hilarious in its utter oxymoronic absurdity. – Dan Romik Jan 17 at 20:09
  • @DanRomik I'm not suggesting that such a scenario is likely, but I am suggesting that when the rest of us discuss ethics we need to be precise — and vsz's comment was not precise. For example, a more familiar situation would be one where the potential reviewer is not a bigot, but just can't stand this particular author, and would be unable to give the paper a fair and unbiased review. I think we can and should expect that person to decline. We can discuss the ethics of hating that individual, but given that hatred we also need to be able to discuss the appropriate response. – Mike Jan 17 at 22:56

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