On June 19, 2012, WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange announced he was seeking asylum in Ecuador’s embassy in London. (Reuters/Olivia Harris)

Recently, WikiLeaks and the profession of international relations have been having a little scuffle. In an Der Spiegel interview, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange laments that the U.S. academy hasn’t engaged with WikiLeaks’ store of leaked diplomatic cables. He suggests that the reason international relations scholars have failed to examine or analyze WikiLeaks data is that the International Studies Association is a feeder school for the U.S. State Department. Dan Drezner counters Assange’s criticisms by saying that the academy’s indifference to WikiLeaks is because the released material is insignificant.

So what’s true?

The International Studies Association doesn’t ban articles based on WikiLeaks data. However, academic editors are worried about legal risks.

Does the International Studies Association have an official policy barring publications that rely on WikiLeaks, as Assange alleges? As Dan notes, and as the ISA’s executive director reiterates, the organization as a whole has no such official policy.

But as of last year, the ISA’s flagship journal International Studies Quarterly did have a provisional policy against handling manuscripts that make use of leaked documents–if such use could be construed as mishandling classified material.

According to the journal’s editor, this policy prohibited both direct quotations and data mining, and was developed based on legal advice. Journal editors are currently “in an untenable position,” according to ISQ’s editor, who noted that ISQ’s policy would remain in place pending broader action from the International Studies Association. I know this because I asked about it while writing a piece on the use of WikiLeaks in academic research. It sounds like that “broader action” still hasn’t happened.

The Monkey Cage’s Henry Farrell  has also found through informal conversations that other prominent academic publishers are extremely nervous about publishing material that explicitly draws on WikiLeaks. It’s not that they want to please the U.S. government; they are worried about the threat of legal action. Henry also notes that manuscripts need to be sent to several reviewers, and these reviewers might have commitments that make it illegal, or at least unwise, for them to be reviewing articles containing classified information – even if such information has been available publicly for years. For example, in many international relations schools hire government or military employers as lecturers or adjunct professors; others on staff may have security clearances.

It’s true that the academy has been extremely cautious and at times confused about how and whether to use material released by WikiLeaks. In the immediate wake of the releases in 2010, several universities advised students to avoid commenting on, linking to or even reading leaked documents, fearing that their students might jeopardize their employment opportunities with the U.S. government. The U.S. State Department, to which the recommendation was originally attributed, soon clarified that it had no formal policy on the matter, and at least one of the universities later formally retracted its recommendation.

However, I’d argue the initial overreaction has had lasting effects on scholars’ willingness to engage with leaked materials.

The WikiLeaks data is valuable for academic research

Dan claims that the global academy isn’t citing WikiLeaks much. This depends on what you mean by  “much.” Citations to cables have shown up in Review of Policy Research, International Affairs, the Middle East Review of International Affairs, the Yale Journal of International Affairs and other law journals, as well as political science and history books published by Yale, Columbia, Cambridge, and many other scholarly presses. Beyond the cables, researchers in fields as varied as informatics, applied mathematics, geography, and economics, have enthusiastically turned to the leaked information of the Afghan War Diary and the Iraq War Logs as invaluable data sources for modeling and predicting conflict. In the blogosphere, we’ve had several posts here at the Monkey Cage, written by me and others, that have used information from WikiLeaks.

Is any of this research earth-shaking? No. But both Julian Assange’s and Dan Drezner’s assertions are unrealistic. Having read hundreds of pages of the cables, I’ll be the first to say that the next Michel Foucault is probably not going to launch a career by analyzing them. Nor will grand international relations theory, in the tradition of scholars like E.H. Carr, Kenneth Waltz, or John Mearsheimer, gain much from the cables.

But many scholars like to play in the dirt: I’m one of them. If, like me, you care about the early stage negotiations of bilateral trade agreements, the global harmonization of intellectual property laws, and the influence of U.S. lobbyists abroad, the WikiLeaks cables are a gold mine. The cables detail U.S. diplomatic efforts on global public health, international development, labor and environmental standards, climate change negotiations, and many other policy-relevant topics. Diplomatic cables also offer insight into what might otherwise be “dogs that do not bark,” as embassy officials and bureaucrats explain what happens when negotiations fail.

Dan argues the cables reveal only ho-hum findings, such as “American diplomats are advancing U.S. commercial interests.” But peeking behind the curtain, we find U.S. diplomats expending disproportionately large amounts of negotiating capital in order to obtain concessions that benefit a very few industries, at the expense of the American public. That’s noteworthy, even if it’s not theoretically novel.

As Ben Norton noted, self-censorship is almost certainly involved. Academics have formal and informal relationships with parties that might not favorably view the use of the cables in research. It’ll be tough to write a convincing grant application if you plan to rely on documents whose legality is in question, especially if you’re asking the government for money. Publishers’ hesitation (actual or rumored) to print research that cites these cables further discourages their use. Even if Assange’s allegations aren’t precisely accurate, he has a point.

In a recent piece entitled “Who’s Afraid of WikiLeaks,” I argue that academics can responsibly use leaked information in their research, and offer suggestions about how to confront the methodological, ethical, and legal implications of doing so.

The cables are not a panacea, but researchers who are willing to take the time to sift through them may be surprised at what they find.

Gabriel J. Michael is a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.