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The publication "Genetics" has withdrawn 18 articles originating from China due to concerns about human rights.
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The publication “Genetics” has withdrawn 18 articles originating from China due to concerns about human rights.

A prominent scientific publisher’s genetics journal has withdrawn 18 articles from China, marking the largest known retraction of academic research due to human rights concerns.

The Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine (MGGM) journal, which is published by the American academic publishing company Wiley, retracted the articles this week. This decision was made after the journal’s editor in chief, Suzanne Hart, and the publishing company came to an agreement. After a review process that spanned two years, it was discovered that there were discrepancies between the research and the consent forms provided by the researchers.

The studies conducted by various scientists rely on DNA samples gathered from groups in China. Some of the researchers utilized samples from groups considered by experts and activists to be at risk of exploitation and mistreatment in China. This has raised concerns about the ability of these individuals to give informed consent for the collection of their samples.

Some of the scientists have connections to Chinese public safety organizations, which undermines the concept of voluntary consent. Yves Moreau, an engineering professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium who specializes in DNA analysis, brought up these concerns to Hart, the editor-in-chief of MGGM, in March 2021.

A withdrawn study examined the genetic makeup of individuals from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, by analyzing blood samples from 120 participants. The publication mentioned that all subjects gave written consent and that the research had been approved by the ethics committee at Fudan University.

The notice of retraction released on Monday indicated that an ethical evaluation revealed discrepancies between the consent forms and the study’s findings. The documentation did not provide enough detail to address the raised concerns.

The corresponding author for the study, Xie Jianhui, is affiliated with the department of forensic medicine at Fudan University in Shanghai. Despite being contacted for comment, Xie did not respond. The retraction notice mentioned that both Xie and the co-authors were not in agreement with the retraction decision.

Some of the individuals who collaborated with Xie are connected to the public security agencies in China, specifically those in charge of Tibetan affairs. Tibet is known for being heavily monitored and controlled by the Chinese government. According to the latest report from Human Rights Watch, the authorities impose strict limitations on religious, speech, travel, and gathering freedoms.

One of the withdrawn research studies analyzed blood samples from 340 people of Uyghur descent in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang, to explore the genetic connections between them and Uyghurs from different areas. The researchers stated that the collected data could be used for “forensic DNA and population genetics” purposes.

All of the withdrawn articles were released within the time period of 2019-2021. In 2021, Moreau expressed concerns regarding the papers in MGGM, resulting in eight editors out of 25 resigning from the journal. The editor in chief, Hart, has chosen to stay in her position. A request for comment from both Hart and MGGM has not been answered.

Some people view MGGM as a genetics publication of moderate rank. Its impact factor is 2.473, placing it in the top 40% of journals. According to David Curtis, a genetics professor at University College London, it is seen as a relatively accessible platform for publishing, which may have appealed to Chinese researchers seeking to publish in English-language journals. Curtis stepped down as editor-in-chief of Annals of Human Genetics, another Wiley journal, after the publisher rejected a proposal to consider boycotting Chinese science due to ethical issues, such as DNA collection.

MGGM focuses on human, molecular, and medical genetics, with a primary focus on studies related to the medical field. A recent publication discussed the relationship between genetic disorders and hearing loss. According to Moreau, there has been a shift in the journal’s content towards forensic genetics research from China, potentially due to increased scrutiny facing other journals that have published research based on DNA samples from marginalized populations in China. Moreau suggests that this may have led to more controversial research being submitted to mid-ranking journals, like MGGM, that do not specifically specialize in forensic genetics.

According to the information page of MGGM, they do not include studies related to forensic genetic analysis. This was included in 2023, following an editorial review of the journal’s goals.

There has been an increasing focus on studies utilizing DNA and other biometric information collected from individuals in China, specifically those belonging to marginalized groups. In 2023, a Dutch academic publisher named Elsevier retracted a publication that used blood and saliva samples from Uyghur and Kazakh individuals residing in Xinjiang, a north-western region of China known for numerous reports of human rights violations.

Days before a deadline set by the Chinese government for universities to provide lists of retracted academic articles from the last three years, Wiley has issued retractions. An analysis by Nature found that approximately 14,000 retraction notices were published in the previous year, with three-quarters of them involving at least one Chinese co-author.

A representative from Wiley stated: “We are still gaining knowledge from this situation and working with our global partners is crucial in shaping 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 the past few years, China has surpassed both the EU and the US in the amount of research produced, and its research is also becoming more influential compared to that of the US.

Source: theguardian.com