Should we start boycotting research conferences in the USA?

News that a Welsh maths teacher was denied entry to the USA while leading a school trip ought to sharpen our thinking about that country – the USA, that is, not Wales. Juhel Miah had a valid visa and was not given a reason for his exclusion, but he reasonably concluded that it was because he is a Muslim.


Demonstrators in Los Angeles (from

Juhel isn’t the first person to be refused entry to the USA because he is (a) brown and (b) has a Muslim name, and he won’t be the last. Further, the President’s policy of a selective ban on travellers from some mainly Muslim nations (limited to those countries with which the USA has negligible trade links) is widely supported by the American population.

Given the importance that most of us attach to inclusivity and fairness, it seems a good time to ask whether the European research community might start refusing to attend academic events in the US. The case for doing so is simple: by participating in an event from which Muslim scholars – and only Muslims – are barred, we are condoning racist and Islamophobic policies, and benefiting from an exclusionary order which will inflict real harm on the careers of our Muslim colleagues. And it is at least a gesture of solidarity with all those – teachers, researchers, whatever – who are denied entry.

Further, participating in an exclusionary seminar or conference is clearly at odds with the very idea and tradition of open science. But I recognise the case for rejecting a boycott. Refusing to take part in research events will mainly hurt US scientists, who are hardly core supporters of the Muslim ban. It won’t make any difference to those who support the ban, who probably regard researchers as the progenitors of ‘fake news’, and it will pass unnoticed by the rest of the US public. Less convincingly, some may say that as the flights and fees have already been paid, I might as well . . .

Other options are available, of course. European researchers could schedule a fringe demonstration of some sort, protesting the exclusion of their Muslim colleagues from the event they are attending. They could demand that the event organisers make a public statement condemning the policy. Or they could wear badges disassociating themselves from the policy (good luck getting past immigration with one of those).

My hunch, though, is that most European researchers will carry on as though nothing has happened. I will soon find out, as the American Educational Research Association holds its conference  in San Antonio at the end of April. Ironically, its theme is Knowledge to Action: Achieving the Promise of Equal Educational Opportunity, which in other circumstances would be quite amusing. European scholars are likely to be there in numbers – possibly including some who have petitioned against allowing the US President to visit their country.

On balance, then, the idea of joining a meeting from which fellow researchers have been excluded on grounds of their race and religion just doesn’t sit well with me. It seems particularly hypocritical coming from people who sign anti-Trump petitions from the safety of their swivel chair, and I very much hope that fellow European researchers think carefully before deciding to attend scholarly events in the States.



Asking for passports: dafter – and more worrying – than I’d thought


Last November, the University of Hertfordshire hit the headlines when it asked guest seminar speakers to produce a passport before giving their seminar. I suggested that this was rather over the top, but I didn’t know the half of it.

After thinking about Hertfordshire’s policy for a bit, I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the University asking for further details. You can see their response below, but a number of things stand out.

The first is that their reply referred me to the University’s policy for Freedom of Speech. My initial reaction was that this wasn’t really relevant, but I was wrong. Among other things the policy requires all University staff, before organising any event on University premises,  to submit

a written request, giving full details of the proposed event, is provided to the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) not less than ten (10) working days before the date of the proposed event
I just love that clarification of the word “ten”! More to the point, though, the policy then states that the Vice-Chancellor (or nominee) will assess the likely risk of the event. It then offers rather broad grounds for banning events, which “include but are not necessarily limited to” events that may give rise to incitements to crime, express views that are contrary to the law, promote the interests of illegal organisations, or “could reasonably be expected to draw individuals into terrorism”. The VC (or nominee) will also consider other factors such as “the good name of the University”.
The second worrying feature is the extension of the requirement to show a passport to new categories of individual. It includes not only employees but those undertaking unpaid work and volunteering. As you can see below, this specifically refers to guest speakers – who must also be told clearly that they are not employees of the University!
And the end result of this policy, in the months since its introduction? Not one individual has yet been discovered who is an illegal immigrant. In short, it seems to have been a waste of time. Unless, that is, the University’s main aim was to increase its control over academic events such as seminars…..

The University of Hertforshire’s response, dated 19 January 2017

A legal requirement for open access?

Last Thursday, the German state of Baden-Württemberg approved a new law on higher education. It covers quite a number of areas, from access to degree study to an Ombudsman system for doctoral research students, but it is the section on open access publishing that has attracted far the most attention.

Under the new law, universities are required to support their researchers in exercising their right to a non-commercial reproduction of their work after a period of one year. As the publishers do not accept that researchers have any such ‘right’, it is entirely unsurprising that they are bitterly critical of this provision.

Theresia Bauer, the Green Party minister who guided the law through parliament, argues that open access is desirable in principle as a way of informing public opinion. She also cites more practical grounds: the public already pay for the research, and the rising price of journal subscriptions means that even university libraries struggle to pay once more for the published findings.

Conservative opposition politicians have supported the publishers, arguing that it contravenes copyright law. Some prominent academics have even argued that the requirement to make their publicationsavailable in an institutional is an attack on academic freedom.

Mercedes-Benz-welt, Stuttgart

Mercedes-Benz-Welt, Stuttgart

You might not know much about Baden-Württemberg, but that doesn’t make it a minor backwater. It has nearly 11m inhabitants and its capital, Stuttgart, is home to some of Germany’s best-known quality car manufacturers. It could serve as a model of the successful, dynamic city-region, with a high density of researchers among its population. The state also houses a thriving wine industry and the beer is pretty good too (I once enjoyed a pint – yes, a pint – in a bar that claimed to have been Hegel’s regular when he was a student).

If Baden-Württemberg chose to declare independence from the rest of the federal republic, it would be one of Europe’s most prosperous and attractive countries. So I am starting to wonder what would happen if the Scottish Government adopted a similar principle, and insisted that all academics in publicly funded universities in Scotland should similarly make their work available online.

If Holyrood were to reach such a decision, they would find themselves in open conflict with the UK Government, which has opted for the far more publisher-friendly model of ‘gold open access’. Picking fights with Westminster is what Alex Salmond likes best, so long as he is on a winning wicket. In this case, I am pretty sure that he would find widespread support for ‘green open access’, both in the research community and among the wider public who pay for our research.