Academic journal

Scientific journal in turmoil of ethical concerns over Chinese genetics papers

The Chinese national flag flies in front of a mosque in the Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar in China, January 3, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Ben Blanchard

New Delhi: A scientific journal has been hit with a string of resignations after publishing several controversial articles that critics say could be used to profile and persecute ethnic minorities in China, and dragged its feet to examine them when they were reported, according to Interception.

The report states that resignations to Molecular genetics and genomic medicine came after the newspaper’s editor was slow to answer questions about articles that involve research on persecuted minorities, including Tibetans and Uyghurs. The articles were first brought to Suzanne Hart’s attention in March by Yves Moreau, a bioinformatician at the University of Louvain, Belgium.

Interception Moreau said “has campaigned tirelessly” to get newspapers to remove disturbing or unethical articles.

For years, scientists have expressed unease over research into DNA collected for forensic databases, which is used by police in criminal investigations. In addition to concerns about profiling, scientists also fear that DNA could be collected from ethnic minorities without their consent. This is the case of the Uyghurs in China and the Roma in Eastern Europe.

In the United States, racial disparities in imprisonment – a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos make up the prison population – has resulted in the disproportionate collection of DNA from these ethnic groups.

According to Interception, this is the first time that so many members of the editorial board of a journal – nearly a third – have resigned for ethical reasons.

Moreau first became concerned with DNA profiling in 2015, when Kuwait planned to collect DNA from all citizens, residents and visitors. Thanks to his efforts and those of others, the decision was overturned the following year. But Moreau continued to fear that science and artificial intelligence could be used to promote authoritarianism.

“In tech, we have this beautiful image of a comfy geek,” he said. Interception. “But when you really look at the history of technology, you see that it has been a power link forever – for at least 2,000 years.”

Recently, he looked into DNA profiling in China, including Xinjiang, where China is accused of interning 1 million Uyghurs in camps and forcing them to work. China collects DNA from men of all ethnicities, but also forcibly collects samples from migrant workers and political dissidents.

During his periodic automated search for articles on ethical issues, he came across 18 articles published by Molecular genetics and genomic medicine. While the journal is not a leading outlet for genetic research, according to the report, it does have an impact factor suggesting that it is not an obscure journal either. In reality, Interception wrote that since the journal is published by Wiley, one of the world’s leading science publishers, it has “an imprimatur of respectability.”

“Some articles describe genetic differences between ethnic groups. Police can use this research for DNA profiling, to better match crime suspects with DNA samples from the general population. Other articles have relied on samples that Moreau suspected of having been taken without the appropriate consent ”, Interception said.

In 2019, Molecular genetics and genomic medicine started publishing articles by authors in China on forensic genetics. Many of them list institutions affiliated with the Chinese police as donors, or authors of these institutions.

Moreau wrote to the journal’s editor, Suzanne Hart, in March that since its inception in 2013, the journal “had only published two forensic genetics studies outside of China.”

“This suggests that MGGM has been specifically identified as a journal where forensic genetic studies of Tibetan populations and vulnerable Tibetans [M]Muslim minorities can be published, ”he wrote.

While Hart said she was investigating the matter and would respond shortly, Moreau said he had not received any updates despite sending several follow-up emails.

Wiley’s public affairs office emailed a statement from Hart to Interception who said the newspaper was “actively investigating and moving towards a swift and transparent resolution.” Hart, who is also deputy director of the medical genetics and genomic medicine training program with the National Institute for Human Genome Research at the US National Institutes of Health, said, “We take the concerns expressed very seriously. and regret that late communications may have indicated otherwise.

But after receiving no response from Hart, Moreau took the issue to the newspaper’s entire editorial board in June 2021. He listed the suspicious documents and explained how the Chinese police are using forensic genetics. Some board members echoed his calls for an investigation.

Although Hart also wrote an email to the board, stating that she would send a message “outlining our decision on how to resolve this issue” soon, there was no further explanation to the board. or in Moreau.

It was at this point that the members of the board of directors began to resign.

“I wish I had heard from the editorial staff much faster,” said Ophir Klein, a pediatric geneticist at the University of California at San Francisco and one of the resigning board members. Interception.

A spokesperson for Wiley said the group has completed its first stage of the investigation and will now contact the authors “to clarify consent procedures for the research being undertaken.”

However, Moreau said the focus on consent is “too narrow.” He said Interception that the larger question is whether “the newspaper should publish research on vulnerable minorities, some of which directly involve the authorities who persecute them”.

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