Politics And Health

Did the US boycott of French products spread to include scientific output?

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1430 (Published 16 December 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:1430
  1. Bernard Bégaud, professor of pharmacology (bernard.begaud{at}pharmaco.u-bordeaux2.fr)1,
  2. Hélène Verdoux, professor of psychiatry1
  1. 1 EA 3676, IFR99 of Public Health, Université Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2, Bordeaux, France
  1. Correspondence to: B Bégaud, Bâtiment Présidence, Université Victor Segalen Bordeaux 2, 33076, Bordeaux cedex, France

    The French opposition to military intervention in Iraq induced a marked anti-French protest in the United States, leading to a boycott of French products. This phenomenon began in February 2003, peaked in early March 2003 after the French veto at the United Nations Security Council, and has continued ever since. During this period, there was a persistent rumour among French researchers that the boycott of French goods had spread to include scientific output—that is, that US journals were tending to reject manuscripts submitted by French research groups. As the rumour was based on subjective impressions and not on any numerical evidence, we investigated whether the proportion of French papers published in leading US journals differed in the periods before and after the French veto.

    Methods and results

    To avoid any suspicion about the choice of the journals to be investigated, we restricted the analysis among weekly journals to the four leading medical journals (New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Lancet, BMJ) and the two leading multidisciplinary science journals (Nature, Science). Because of the time lag between submission and publication, we assumed that any effect of the French veto on publication rates would be delayed by at least three months in journals with weekly publications. We therefore conducted a Medline search for the period July 2002 to June 2004 to identify all papers mentioning one of the 15 European Union (EU) countries in the authors' addresses. We categorised the papers according to time of publication (before or after the French veto), nationality of journals (US or UK), and country of authorship.

    The number of French papers published in the US journals decreased after the French veto, with an almost symmetrical increase in the number of French papers published in the UK journals (table). For most other EU countries, the change over time in the number of papers published in US or UK journals was in the same direction for both these groups of journals. We found a similar pattern for Belgium to that for France, whereas we found a reverse pattern for Germany, and to a lesser extent for Denmark.

    Papers from EU countries published in leading UK and US medical and multidisciplinary science journals before and after French veto of military intervention in Iraq. Values are numbers (percentages of EU papers) of Medline citations* unless stated otherwise

    View this table:

    Commentary

    The number of French papers published in US journals decreased after the French veto of military action in Iraq, and simultaneously increased in UK journals. As we could not document rejection rates, we cannot exclude the possibility that French researchers might have decided to avoid US journals as a reaction to the US anti-French campaign and preferred to submit their work to UK journals, although the attractive impact factors and reputation of US journals make this hypothesis unlikely. Our decision to assess only high impact journals, which presumably publish high quality papers, might have underestimated any effect since the influence of non-scientific criteria (such as geographical bias) on the acceptance rate might be less pronounced for papers of high scientific quality than for those submitted to lower ranking journals.

    What is already known on this topic

    Editorial decisions may be influenced by the country of origin of submitted papers, but little is known of the impact of major political events on such decisions

    What this study adds

    The French veto of military intervention in Iraq might have induced a US boycott of French scientific output, as suggested by the decrease in the number of French papers published in leading US journals after the veto

    Although Germany supported the French position, the number of German papers in the US journals increased over the two periods. This finding is not contradictory with a specific boycott of French scientific output as no marked anti-German protest arose in the United States.

    Although editorial decisions in medical and scientific journals should be based solely on scientific criteria,1 this is not always so2 and the country of origin of submitted papers may influence reviewers' decisions,3 but little is known about the influence of major political events on such decisions. Although no definite conclusion can be drawn from the present findings, they suggest that the rumour of a US boycott of French scientific output is not totally groundless.

    Footnotes

    • Contributors HV collected the data. Both authors contributed to the study design, interpretation of results, and writing of the manuscript. Both are guarantors.

    • Funding None.

    • Competing interests None declared.

    References

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