Sharing and Ensnaring… by Beth Evans

At the start of Open Access Week, Oct. 19 – 25th, we offer a reflection on sharing and scholarly communication by:

Professor Beth Evans, Coordinator of Digital Scholarship Initiatives & Electronic Services Librarian, Faculty Fellow to the Office of the Dean of Humanities and Social Science,  Brooklyn College,

Sharing and Ensnaring: When Collaborative Research has a Run in with the Law and Racial Profiling

The abuse of authority by law enforcement is, unfortunately, not a new topic in the news.  From the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri to the choking of Eric Gardner in Staten Island, New York, headlines cry out the injustice and we all begin to wonder if those hired to protect us present the greatest threat to our safety.

Academia is often envisioned as an ivory tower set far apart from the gritty reality of urban streets.  Its workforce of faculty do not struggle as do many African-Americans with the challenges of unemployment. They support themselves through the work of their minds and eschew a livelihood of selling loose cigarettes outside of a neighborhood bodega.  So when law enforcement comes down with a heavy hand on a college campus and throws its weight at an innocent, we are shocked by the setting, but should hardly be shocked by the racism implicit in the abuse of authority.  Moreover, when this racist and heavy-handed move into our ivory tower has found its way in because of the welcome tendency of academics to be eager to share openly their scholarship, alarm bells must ring and those who champion open access must make ready to face the threat.

In May of 2015 the United States Department of Justice Department arrested Xi Xiaoxing the chairman of Temple University’s physics department, and a Chinese-born, naturalized American citizen, on wire-fraud charges. What might have been treated as a breach of contract civil case had the individual involved not been Chinese-born, the DOJ pursued the case as though Professor Xi had been spying when he shared, what they thought was, sensitive, American-made technology with China.  As it turned out, the U.S. government was wrong in its accusations, and “did not understand — and did not do enough to learn — the science at the heart of [Professor Xi’s] case.”  The government’s misunderstanding of the blueprints upon which it based its argument was hardly a comedy of errors and came closer to a tragedy that almost destroyed a scholar’s career.

This was not the first time that the U. S. government egregiously went after a Chinese-American with accusations of spying. In the fall of 2014, the FBI arrested Sherry Chen in Wilmington, Ohio, a flood-caster at the National Weather Service.  They accused her of secretly passing information about American dams to high-ranking Chinese officials.  Chen, like Xi, was exonerated, but not first without suffering in her personal and professional life.

American scientists and researchers like others often work collaboratively or consult with colleagues both close and abroad.  The open access movement in scholarly communications, championed by librarians, is meant to encourage such work.  With the paywalls knocked down around published information and communications made easy through readily-available internet access, it is common place for colleagues to share neither a lab nor a nation.  Nonetheless, research thrives, the miles between the researchers melt away, and the public can only benefit from the fast and easy dispersal of valuable scientific information.

Reporting recently in the New York Times on the awarding of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, William J. Broad observed that “[t]his week’s three Nobel Prizes reflect the globalization of science, which the United States often dominated in the last century.”  In addition to the awarding of the prize to Chinese doctor Youyou Tu for her discovery of a malaria therapy, the Nobel committee awarded half of the prize to be shared by William C. Campbell, formerly of Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research in NJ, and Satoshi Ōmura, emeritus professor at Kitasato University in Tokyo, Japan for their discoveries of therapies used against infections caused by roundworm parasites.

This was not the first time researchers, separated by thousands of miles and international borders, shared a Nobel Prize for collaborative work.  In 2014, the committee awarded another shared Nobel Prize, this one in Chemistry to Eric Betzig of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia, Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center in Germany and William E. Moerner of Stanford University in California for the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

No FBI agents or Department of Justice came after the Irish-American William Campbell for working with the Japanese Satoshi Omura, Nor did they surround the suburban homes of Eric Betzig and William Moerner for their liaison activities with the German scientist Stefan Hell. But would things have been different for both sets of Nobel laureates, had the year been 1943 and any American scientist seen in a relationship with a citizen of an axis nation was immediately suspect? We know that during the Second World War, innocent Japanese-American citizens of all walks of life were seen as dangerous to American security and were rounded up en mass for no reason other than the nationality of their ancestors. Lives were put on hold and creativity and productivity were squashed, all in the name of an approved policy of racial profiling for the sake of national security.

If the open access movement in scholarly communications is to survive and thrive, ill-guided interference by governmental authorities in the work of researchers in any nation, often nourished and grossly contorted by unhealthy xenophobia and profiling, must be kept in check. If not, researchers will close themselves in their labs, turn off contact with the outside world, and the pace of innovation and life-saving creation will grind to a halt. Little new research will be produced, open to all or otherwise.

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