February 26, 2024

Concerns have been raised that academic publishers may not be doing enough to scrutinize the ethical standards of research they publish after a paper based on genetic data from China’s Uyghur population was retracted and questions were raised about several others, including one that currently published by Oxford. University Press.

In June, Elsevier, a Dutch academic publisher, withdrawn an article titled “Analysis of Uyghur and Kazakh populations using the Precision ID Ancestry Panel” published in 2019.

The study by Chinese and Danish researchers used blood and saliva samples from 203 Uyghur and Kazakh people living in Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang, to evaluate the use of genetic sequencing technology developed by Thermo Fisher Scientific, an American biotechnology company, on the two ethnic minority groups. The authors outlined the need for the research and suggested that better DNA sequencing could help police identify suspects in cases. “A clear knowledge of the genetic variation is important to understand the origin and demographic history of the ethnicity of the populations in Xinjiang… [which] can provide an investigative lead for the police.”

The retraction notice said the article was retracted at the request of the journal that published it, Forensic Science International: Geneticsafter an investigation revealed that the relevant ethical approval had not been obtained for the collection of the genetic samples.

Mark Munsterhjelm, a professor at the University of Windsor in Ontario who specializes in racism in genetic research, said the fact that the paper was published at all was “typical of the culture of complicity in forensic genetics that undermines ethics and informed uncritical accept. consent requirements in relation to vulnerable populations”.

Concerns were also raised about a paper in a journal sponsored by China’s Ministry of Justice. The study, titled Sequencing Human Identification Markers in a Uyghur Population, analyzed Uyghur genetic data based on blood samples collected from individuals in the capital city of Xinjiang, in northwestern China. Yves Moreau, an engineering professor at the University of Leuven, in Belgium, who focuses on DNA analysis, expressed concern that the subjects in the study may not have freely consented to their DNA samples being used. He also argued that the research enables “further mass surveillance” of Uyghur people.

It appeared in the June 2022 issue of the journal Forensic Sciences Research (FSR), which was acquired by Oxford University Press in 2023. The research was partially supported by a research grant from Xinjiang Police College, and was written by three of the same scientists as the retracted Elsevier article.

It has not been formally placed under ethical review by the journal’s editors, or by OUP, which hosts the journal.

Duarte Nuno Vieira, the associate editor-in-chief of FSR, denied that financial support from China’s Ministry of Justice had any impact on the magazine’s editorial policy, calling the proposal “ethically objectionable.”

Both papers are based on research conducted in Xinjiang, where there are widespread reports of human rights abuses. As well as a widespread system of detention camps, people in the region – which is mostly UyghursKazakhs and other ethnic minority people – are subject to high levels of state surveillance.

People walk past a sign with political propaganda
People walk past a sign with political propaganda in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group found mainly in Xinjiang, which is part of China, but whose ancestors come from Central Asia as well as mainland China. They have long had a rocky relationship with Beijing, which many accuse of wanting to break away from Chinese rule.

Experts say that people in Xinjiang may not be able to freely agree to participate in research studies.

In both papers, one of the researchers, Halimureti Simayijiang, was affiliated with China’s state security apparatus via the Xinjiang Police College, compounding these concerns.

Maya Wang, an associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Given how oppressive the overall environment was for the Uyghurs [in China]is it not really possible for Uyghurs to say no [to the collection of DNA].”

The Biden administration recently lifted sanctions on the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science in an effort to facilitate cooperation fentanyl control. The institute has been subject to sanctions since 2020 due to the alleged mistreatment of Uyghur people.

On Nov. 19, Moreau formally raised concerns about the study on Uyghur DNA published in Forensic Sciences Research.

The article states that “written informed consent” was obtained from each of the 264 Uyghurs who provided blood samples. In an email to Irene Tracey, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, seen by the Guardian, Moreau said: “The standard for informed consent is free informed consent,” which he argues is impossible in the context of Xinjiang.

A spokesperson for OUP noted that the paper was accepted and published by FSR before OUP began publishing the journal. They said: “While the article has been peer-reviewed, and research ethics statements and disclosures are included on the article page, we will work with the journal’s editors to investigate the concerns raised and the information we have received. “

The authors of the paper are listed as Simayijiang, Niels Morling and Claus Børsting from the forensic genetics department of the University of Copenhagen. Simayijiang is listed as jointly affiliated with Xinjiang Police College. These three scientists are the authors of the paper that was retracted by Elsevier in June, together with Torben Tvedebrink, a data scientist.

The University of Copenhagen said Simayijiang was no longer affiliated with the university after he left in 2020. Both the retracted paper, and the paper Moreau expressed concern about, were submitted before Simayijiang left the university.

Nuno Vieira said FSR was “completely impartial and transparent” and that the journal’s reduction included “some of the most recognized and respected forensic professionals and academics in the world”.

He said he would raise the ethical concerns with the relevant staff at the journal, adding: “There has never been (I repeat, never) any interference or action” from China’s Ministry of Justice.

Police stand guard at the main square in Kashgar, Xinjiang.
Police stand guard at the main square in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Photo: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Hans Bräuner, the vice-dean for research at the University of Copenhagen’s faculty of health and medical sciences, said that since concerns were first raised about the ethics of data collection in Xinjiang in 2020, the university has made a number of introduced measures to improve controls over sensitive research, including the establishment of a data management unit and a security checklist for risk assessments of international research.

Two other articles on Uyghur and Kazakh genetic data by Simayijiang, Morling and Børsting, along with a fourth author, Vania Pereira, also from the University of Copenhagen, are officially under ethical review by the journal in which they were published. Bräuner said his faculty was only made aware of the concerns about these papers, which are published in Forensic Sciences International: Genetics, in December, but was in contact with the journal’s editor-in-chief to clarify the matter.

None of the researchers responded to requests for comment.

Experts say the papers are the tip of the iceberg of scientific research that may not meet ethical standards for data collection, and that in some cases could help develop surveillance technology that can be used to violate human rights, especially among minority groups.

Thermo Fisher, which owns the DNA sequencing kit evaluated in the paper, withdrew in June, said in 2019 that he would stop selling his equipment in Xinjiang.

In recent years, there has been increased scrutiny of scientific research based on material from populations in China who may not have the ability to freely consent, especially ethnic minority people. Bioethicists first raised concerns in 2019which led to respected journals pull back several articles based on genetic material from minorities.

Scientists say publishers are still too willing to accept research that may raise ethical concerns, and too slow to respond to complaints.

Moreau expressed concern about dozens of papers. In November he was awarded the Einstein Foundation Prize for “powerfully” advocating for “ethical standards in the use of human DNA data,” according to the judging committee.

According to Moreau’s analysis, more than 20% of published research on forensic population genetics in China between 2011 and 2018 focused on Uyghurs, despite the fact that they make up less than 1% of the population. Tibetans have an even higher “supervision ratio”.

Moreau said, “Although Uyghurs are interesting to study from a genetic perspective because they are a mixed population with both East Asian and Eurasian heritage, and Tibetans are interesting because of their adaptation to high altitudes, research on these groups is surprising intense.”

A spokesperson for the Chinese government said: “China is a country governed by law. The privacy of all Chinese citizens, regardless of their ethnic background, is protected by law.”

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