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Feature Publication Ethics

Unintended consequences of sanctions against Iran

BMJ 2013; 347 doi: (Published 23 July 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f4650

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  1. Sophie Arie, freelance journalist
  1. 1London, UK
  1. sophiearie{at}

Fear of breaching US sanctions is leading some editors to reject papers from Iranian authors. Sophie Arie investigates

The latest changes to US sanctions on Iran, designed to discourage the country from developing nuclear weapons, seem to have caused confusion, leading to some journal editors effectively boycotting research from Iranian medical practitioners and academics.

Regulations set out by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control state that US citizens are authorised to engage in ordinary transactions related to written publications as long as the parties to the transactions are not employed by the Iranian government.1 Most Iranian universities, hospitals, and research centres are government owned but the regulations specify that the sanctions do not apply to any academic and research institutions or their staff.

Nevertheless, Iranian doctors have told the BMJ that several papers have been refused by journals in the US and Australia in recent months because of the sanctions.

The editor of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (JACI), which is owned by Elsevier, explained in an email to an assistant professor in the department of paediatrics at Tehran University of Medical Sciences that the journal could not accept his paper because “US owned journals are unable to handle scientific manuscripts which are authored by Iranian scientists, employed by the Government of Iran.”

Papers from Iranians are also known to have been turned down by the American Journal of Cardiology (also published by Elsevier), the Journal of Ocular Pharmacology and Therapeutics (published in the US by Marie Ann Liebert), and the Australian journal Ophthalmic Epidemiology (published by Informa Healthcare in the UK), all of whom explained that US sanctions prevented them from considering the research.

Dove Medical Press (an open access online publisher whose headquarters are in the UK and editorial office is in New Zealand) turned down a paper saying that “international sanctions currently in place against Iran mean that Dove Medical Press is no longer able to process manuscripts received from Iranian authors.”

“We do not make this decision lightly and have consulted with the authorities both here in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom before making our decision,” said Jeanette Pearce, Dove’s New Zealand based operations manager.

“It is not ethical to treat Iranian researchers this way,” Behrooz Astaneh, acting editor of the Iranian Journal of Medical Science, told the BMJ. “These people want to disseminate data they have obtained in very difficult circumstances because of the sanctions. Research publication should be on merit and have nothing to do with politics.”

Protecting editors

According to a report from Science magazine, Elsevier advised its US editors in April against handling any papers authored by employees of the government of Iran and in an email shown to the BMJ, the editor of JACI explained, “our publisher precludes taking any articles from authors based at Iranian institutions or hospitals.” Yet, Elsevier says it believes in the “free flow of ideas and information as a principle for science and for society” and chief lawyer, Mark Seeley, told the BMJ that the company continues to publish papers from Iranian academics and researchers affiliated with academic or medical institutions. Elsevier decided it was necessary to make “narrowly crafted exceptions” because of the potential for personal liability on the part of its US editors.2

Asked if some US editors had possibly misunderstood the publisher’s guidance on this, Seeley responded that the problem was over “the exact definition of ‘government employees’ other than academics and practitioners. Seeley said the company was seeking greater clarity but had not yet received it.

John Sullivan of the US Treasury told the BMJ that “The focus of our sanctions is the Iranian regime and its support for terrorism and its illicit nuclear programme. Our sanctions do not target academic or informational materials.”

A different view

Other American health publications, including the two leading journals the New England Journal of Medicine and Journal of the American Medical Association, said they were continuing to publish Iranian submissions on merit.

“Different journals have adopted very different strategies on this,” Elaheh Malakan Rad, associate professor of paediatric interventional cardiology at the Children’s Medical Centre in Tehran, told the BMJ. “There needs to be clear guidance on the ethical issue here.”

The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which advises editors on handling ethically sensitive issues, discussed problems surrounding Iranian authors in a June meeting and affirmed the need, already previously agreed because of other concerns, that clearer guidance is needed. COPE is planning to add a paragraph to its code of conduct stating that, “Editorial decisions should not be affected by the origins of the manuscript, including the nationality, ethnicity, political beliefs, race, or religion of the authors. Decisions to edit and publish should not be determined by the policies of governments or other agencies outside of the journal itself.”

The United Kingdom government has also changed its sanctions recently and continually updates a list of banned authors and institutions thought to be involved in Iran’s nuclear programme. However, the BMJ continues to take papers on merit and has chosen in some instances to waive the usual author fee charged for open access publication of research because of regulations over bank transactions with Iran.

“The BMJ is against academic boycotts and has no restrictions on publishing articles from authors in Iran,” the BMJ’s editor, Fiona Godlee, said in a statement posted on “We have noted the UK’s restrictions on trading with Iran and are also aware of the new US restrictions. These may have implications for whether we can levy an author fee from an author in Iran. We will decide this on a case by case basis.”

Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet (which is owned by Elsevier) said: “The Lancet welcomes and encourages research from scientists in all countries, including Iran. Indeed, we are currently working to strengthen our links with Iranian medical and public health scientists.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f4650


  • Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.