News and Views on Tibet

Scientific journal retracts 18 papers from China due to concerns regarding human rights

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By Tsering Dhundup

DHARAMSHALA, Feb 20: A genetics journal from a leading scientific publisher has retracted 18 papers from China, marking what is believed to be the largest mass retraction of academic research concerning human rights concerns.

The articles were originally published between 2019 and 2021. in Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine (MGGM), a genetics journal under the purview of the US academic publishing company Wiley. This week, after an extensive review process spanning over two years, the papers were retracted following an agreement between the journal’s editor-in-chief, Suzanne Hart, and the publishing company. Investigators discovered “inconsistencies” between the research and the consent documentation provided by the researchers.

The studies authored by different scientists, all relied on research that involved DNA samples collected from various populations including those in occupied regions under China. Alarmingly, some of the populations were identified by experts and human rights activists as vulnerable to exploitation and oppression within China, raising doubts about their ability to provide truly informed consent.

Several of the researchers involved in the retracted studies have affiliations with public security authorities in China, a factor that experts argue compromises the notion of free informed consent. Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the University of Leuven in Belgium specializing in DNA analysis, highlighted this issue when he initially raised concerns about the papers with MGGM’s editor-in-chief in March 2021.

One of the retracted papers focused on studying the DNA of Tibetans in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, using blood samples collected from 120 individuals. While the article initially claimed that all individuals provided written informed consent and that the Fudan University ethics committee approved the work, a subsequent ethical review found inconsistencies in the consent documentation.

Another retracted study utilized blood samples from 340 Uyghur individuals in Kashgar, a city in East Turkistan, to explore genetic links between them and Uyghurs from other regions. Despite claiming the data would be valuable for forensic DNA and population genetics, concerns were raised about the validity of consent documentation.

The retractions come amidst increasing scrutiny of research utilizing DNA or other biometric data from individuals in China, particularly from vulnerable populations. This includes a prior retraction by Elsevier in 2023 of an article based on samples from Uyghur and Kazakh people in Xinjiang, where widespread reports of human rights abuses have been documented.

Reports from Human Rights Watch and Citizen Lab have highlighted the Chinese government’s extensive DNA collection efforts in regions like Tibet, where mass DNA collection programs have raised concerns about social control and surveillance. Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Massachusetts-based company, has faced criticism for supplying DNA kits to the Chinese Communist Party, facilitating forced sample collection and biometric surveillance across Tibet. Following advocacy efforts and pressure from the United States Congress, Thermo Fisher Scientific announced it would cease selling DNA kits in Tibet as of December 31, 2023.

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