Boycott Israeli Academics?

The Numbers Don't Lie: They're Already Blacklisted
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Hebrew University of Jerusalem

http://discardedlies.com/entries/2005/10/boycott_israeli_academics.php

Summary

The number of publications from Israel in the British Medical Journal decreases or stagnates from 1984-2004, while it increases over that period in the comparable JAMA-Journal of the American Medical Association. Similar analyses for publications from Switzerland and Denmark (chosen because these countries are comparable to Israel in size, publication volumes, and academic achievements) show increasing numbers of publications over that period in both journals. These patterns (Israeli publications do not increase over a long period in the British journal, but do, as for the other countries, in the North American journal) look like those reported for “Nature” and “Science” (British and US-based, respectively; Seligmann 2003a,b; available at

http://www.spme.net/documentation/bmj.html or http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/327/7421/989-d and http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/eletters/326/7391/713/c ).

Israeli academics seem to have been unofficially boycotted long before the first calls for an organized boycott, and some data might indicate that such boycott, although until now weaker, might exist also for US-based journals.

An editorial in Science suggested that the recent calls for an academic boycott of Israel’s scientists serves to elude fair and open competition from colleagues. This was in reference to the refusal of some researchers to share cell lines used in their experiments with Israeli researchers (Kennedy 2002).

Indeed, the political boycott of Israel’s academy seems to take sometimes unexpected forms: during my stay at the University of Chicago, I submitted to a British Journal a manuscript that referred to an article about the positive association between maximal longevities recorded for Gecko lizards in the wild with those recorded in captivity (Werner et al, 1993). A reviewer complained that I should not cite “obscure, unavailable journals”, apparently because the referenced article was in Israel Journal of Zoology. This seemed weird, as much more obscure and less available journals are frequently cited (not only by myself). This objection is unscientific, and counters the spirit of referencing. (By the way, reprints of that article are freely available upon request from its main author, as is usual in the scientific community).

A few years later, I incidentally reported this to Yehudah L. Werner, who told me he got a similar complaint from a reviewer because, in one of his manuscripts, he referred to some other article from Israel Journal of Zoology. Werner told me he suspected that these cases relate to the boycott of Israel’s academy. These two cases are only suggestive, but one may wonder how many authors got similar reactions, and how many times this was, or was not, versus references from one of the “Israel Journal of….”.

Reactions of reviewers of scientific manuscripts are often irrational, related to many unscientific and subjective factors. Many live in the feeling that the extent and frequency of the peculiar reviews increases over the years. For example, YL Werner, having authored many referenced publications over the past 50 years never had and never heard about such reactions from reviewers until this period.

It is in this general atmosphere of increasing irrational and unprofessional reviewing that I heard of the first public calls for a boycott of Israel’s academy. My immediate gut feeling was that, since a long time, this affects decisions to publish, and that the “political” boycott of Israel is only one among many subjective factors that affect these decisions (not only for Israeli academics).

This is why I explored the trends, over 30 years, in publications by Israelis, in some reputed journals.

My suspicions were confirmed: numbers of publications from Israel in the US-based journal Science increased in parallel and proportionally to the total number of publications by Israelis in all journals (this was also true for another prestigious journal, “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA”, but stagnated in the comparable, UK-based Nature

For Switzerland and Denmark (chosen as positive controls because of their similarity with Israel in population sizes, publication volumes and academic achievements, and because Israel“s scientists belong to the European scientific community, and this more than to the US scientific community), publication numbers increased in both „Science“ and „Nature“ over that period (Seligmann 2003a,b).

Figure 1. Number of yearly publications from three countries (Israel, Switzerland and Denmark) in the „British Medical Journal“ as a function of the yearly number of publications in about 6000 scientific Journals. Lines indicate the regression for that country (data were compiled from the Web of Knowledge, expanded Science Citation Index http://isi1.isiknowledge.com).

Figures 1 and 2 display publication trends for two medical journals, the „British Medical Journal“ (BMJ), and „JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association“, comparing these three countries in the two journals. Patterns remind those found in my previous publication about „Nature“ and „Science“: publication numbers in BMJ increase over the study period for Switzerland and Denmark proportionally to the total volume of publication by these countries, but not for Israel in the latter (Figure 1).

In contrast, for all three countries, there was a proportional increase in the US-based journal (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Number of yearly publications from three countries (Israel, Switzerland and Denmark) in ‘JAMA’ as a function of the yearly number of publications in about 6000 scientific Journals. Materials and Methods as for Figure 1.

Considering that the slopes for Switzerland and Denmark are very similar in both journals, the weakness of the positive slope for Israel in „JAMA“ could be indicative that some negative effect decreases numbers of publications from Israel also in that journal, although other interpretations cannot be dismissed.

Yet there are good reasons to suspect that the unofficial boycott affects negatively Israeli publications also in the US-based journals, because reviewers for an American journal are not necessarily from America, and anti-Israeli activism is particularly virulent on many US campuses, especially those from the most influential universities.

Conclusions are not encouraging:

• Bias against Israel affects multidecennial publication trends to an extent that is statistically detectable, also for publications likely to affect human lives (such as are likely to be published in these important medical journals, contrasting with the anecdotic evidence I report here for lizard eco- physiology (remember the manuscripts rejected because, among others, they cited the „Israel Journal of Zoology“)

• This is true for the „British Medical Journal“ as it was found for „Nature“ and suggests some generality to the phenomenon

• There are causes for suspecting that the negative effects might develop in the future to greater extents also for US-based journals.

References:

KENNEDY D (2002) When science and politics don’t mix. Science 296: 1765.

SELIGMANNH (2003a) Organizing publicly one of many decennial silent boycotts: how old is the iceberg? A call for some transparency in reviewing processes, British Medical Journal, fast reply at: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/eletters/326/7391/713/c#33902. Accessed October 2003.

SELIGMANNH (2003b), More transparency in reviewing is called for, British Medical Journal 25: 989-990.

WERNER YL, FRANKENBERG E, VOLOKITA M, HARARI R (1993) Longevity of geckos (Reptilia, Lacertilia, Gekkonoidea) in captivity – an analytical review incorporating new data. IsraelJournal of Zoology 39 (2): 105-124.

Boycott Israeli Academics?

The Numbers Don't Lie: They're Already Blacklisted
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AUTHOR

Herve Seligmann


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