Genetics journal retracts 18 papers from China due to human rights concerns

<span>Some of the retracted papers were based on research drawing on DNA samples from Xinjiang and Tibet, where human rights are under threat.</span><span>Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Some of the retracted papers were based on research drawing on DNA samples from Xinjiang and Tibet, where human rights are under threat.Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

A genetics journal from a leading scientific publisher has retracted 18 papers from China, in what is thought to be the biggest mass retraction of academic research due to concerns about human rights.

The articles were published in Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine (MGGM), a genetics journal published by the US academic publishing company Wiley. The papers were retracted on 12 February after an agreement between the journal’s editor in chief, Suzanne Hart, and the publishing company. In a review process that took over two years, investigators found “inconsistencies” between the research and the consent documentation provided by researchers.

The papers by different scientists are all based on research that draws on DNA samples collected from populations in China. In several cases, the researchers used samples from populations deemed by experts and human rights campaigners to be vulnerable to exploitation and oppression in China, leading to concerns that they would not be able to freely consent to such samples being taken.

Related: Academic paper based on Uyghur genetic data retracted over ethical concerns

Several of the researchers are associated with public security authorities in China, a fact that “voids any notion of free informed consent”, said Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the University of Leuven, in Belgium, who focuses on DNA analysis. Moreau first raised concerns about the papers with Hart, MGGM’s editor-in-chief, in March 2021.

One retracted paper studies the DNA of Tibetans in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, using blood samples collected from 120 individuals. The article stated that “all individuals provided written informed consent” and that work was approved by the Fudan University ethics committee.

But the retraction notice published on Monday stated that an ethical review “uncovered inconsistencies between the consent documentation and the research reported; the documentation was not sufficiently detailed to resolve the concerns raised”.

Xie Jianhui, the corresponding author on the study, is from the department of forensic medicine at Fudan University in Shanghai. Xie did not respond to a request for comment, but the retraction notice states that Xie and his co-authors did not agree with the retraction.

Several of Xie’s co-authors are affiliated with the public security authorities in China, including the Tibetan public security authorities. Tibet is considered to be one of the most closely surveilled and tightly monitored regions in China. In Human Rights Watch’s most recent annual report, the campaign group said that the authorities “enforce severe restrictions on freedoms of religion, expression, movement, and assembly”.

Another of the retracted studies used blood samples from 340 Uyghur individuals in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, to study the genetic links between them and Uyghurs from other regions. The scientists said the data would be a resource for “forensic DNA and population genetics”.

The retracted papers were all published between 2019 and 2021. In 2021, after Moreau raised concerns about the papers in MGGM, eight of the journal’s 25 editors resigned. The journal’s editor in chief, Hart, has remained in her post. Hart and MGGM did not respond to a request for comment.

MGGM is considered by some to be a mid-ranking genetics publication. It has an impact factor of 2.473, which puts it roughly in the top 40% of journals. It is considered to be a relatively easy forum for publication, which may have been a draw for Chinese researchers looking to publish in English-language journals, said David Curtis, a professor of genetics at University College London. Curtis resigned from his position as editor-in-chief of Annals of Human Genetics, another Wiley journal, after the publisher vetoed a call to consider boycotting Chinese science because of ethical concerns, including those relating to DNA collection.

MGGM states that its scope is human, molecular and medical genetics. It primarily publishes studies on the medical applications of genetics, such as a recent paper on genetic disorders linked to hearing loss. The sudden pivot towards publishing forensic genetics research from China came as other forensic genetics journals started facing more scrutiny for publishing research based on DNA samples from vulnerable minorities in China, said Moreau. He argues that may have pushed more controversial research towards mid-ranking journals such as MGGM that do not specialise in forensic genetics.

On its information page, MGGM states that it “does not consider studies involving forensic genetic analysis”. That caveat was added in 2023, after an editorial review of the journal’s aims.

In recent years there has been a growing scrutiny on research that uses DNA or other biometric data from individuals in China, particularly those from vulnerable populations. In 2023, Elsevier, a Dutch academic publisher, retracted an article based on blood and saliva samples from Uyghur and Kazakh people living in Xinjiang, a region in north-west China where there are also widespread reports of human rights abuses.

The Wiley retractions come days before a Chinese government deadline requiring universities to submit lists of all academic articles retracted in the past three years. According to an analysis by Nature, nearly 14,000 retraction notices were published last year, of which three-quarters involved a Chinese co-author.

A spokesperson for Wiley said: “We are continuing to learn from this case, and collaboration with international colleagues is valuable in developing our policies.

“Investigations that involve multiple papers, stakeholders and institutions require significant effort, and often involve lag time in coordinating and analysing information across all involved, as well as translation of materials. We recognise that this takes a significant amount of time but always aim to act as swiftly as possible.”

In recent years, China has outstripped the EU and the US in terms of total research output, and the impact of its research is also catching up with output from the US.