Lessons From Iran’s Academic Community

The Washington Times is calling it “Iran’s Twitter Revolution”, as the largest political demonstrations since the 1979 revolution have unfolded in Iran since the highly questionable re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on June 13, 2009. To date, at least 20 people have lost their lives and hundreds of journalists, academics and activists have been arrested. The Iranian government initially closed down the telephone system in an effort to forestall social protest, only to see the streets fill, day after day, through early June, supported by cyberactivism which the government then tried to curtail: “The [Iranian] hackers in particular were active in helping keep channels open,” the Washington Times reported, “as the regime blocked them, and they spread the word about functioning proxy portals.” My colleague at UBC, Mary Bryson, summed it up well in an email to me, noting how “protests are being organized with the assistance of blogs and tweets, cell phone videos of oppressive military interventions to quash opposition are being widely circulated, and citizen-based DIY (Do-It-Yourself) journalism is surpassing commercial outlets in timeliness and accuracy.”

None of this should surprise us, given the amount of blogging and other uses of the what was once quaintly known as the world wide web coming out of Iran, despite Ahmadinejad’s adversarial international politics and general stance as the leader of a closed society. Here I want to draw attention to one parallel development, involving scholarly communication in Iran.

Nature reports in an editorial “We Are All Iranians” on July 2, 2009, that Iran, under Ahmadinejad, had experienced both stronger support for the sciences and a reduction in academic freedom through “appointing government stooges to many senior university positions,” as the editorial puts it. Many academics have left the country, and on June 24, 70 faculty members were arrested following a meeting in which they were advising the opposition candidate Mousavi.

Nature charges that “the international scientific community has been laggard and passive in responding to the current situation” and reports that “Iranian scientists say that the solidarity of the international academic and scientific community is needed now more than ever.”

In terms of that solidarity and support, I would add that we at the Public Knowledge Project have been proud of the opportunity to support the strong interest from among Iranian academics in sharing their research through the development of open access online editions of Iranian journals, a number of which use our open source software Open Journal Systems.

The journals, from brand-new titles such as Mashhad Research Journal of Mathematical Sciences to the twenty-year-old Medical Journal of the Islamic Republic of Iran are contributing to the global scale on which research is exchanged and circulated. Their work turns up in Google Scholar searches and other indexes. Publishing in Farsi and/or English, these journals are witnesses to how new technologies are not only mobilizing the democratic forces of dissent, as important a role as that has proven to be in Iran, but are more generally allowing different communities and alliances, within the traditional bounds of nations and cultures, to take their own stance, reaching out to the larger world in ways that only extend the connections and links among us all.

Given the demonstrated contribution and commitment to a more open science within Iran, the current repressive measures in that country are not simply an internal matter, a question of Iran’s national sovereignty. Any loss of openness, in the sharing of this knowledge, affects us all, and in that sense we need to both speak out on these current measures as a global issue, and we need to affirm our support for these publishing initiatives.

When Nature calls on the research community to “do everything possible to promote continued contacts with colleagues in Iran,” one form that contact can take is through these Iranian journals. Their open access status contributes to our ability to connect in the most basic way among academics, as one scholar comes to consider the research of others, just as we need to honor such efforts by ensuring our own work is as open to the increasingly global scale of this exchange.

President Obama was reported on July 6, 2009 as saying that “we have offered a pathway for Iran to rejoining the international community,” and we need to recognize that elements within Iran seek to contribute to and be part of that community. In the very spirit of Nature’s editorial – “we are all Iranians” (with its echo of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech in Berlin) – citizens of the republic of letters and the sciences would do well to see how our responsibilities extend to the whole of this world and to all who would contribute to this particular public good.

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