One-third of the members of the editorial board of a leading American medical journal has resigned in protest against the publication of several research papers that could help the Chinese regime in its persecution of minorities. According to a report by The Intercept, after a slew of research papers that can help racial profiling of minorities in China were published by the journal named Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine, eight of the 25 editorial board members resigned in protest. The members protested after the management of the journal failed to take any action on the papers despite repeated complaints.
According to The Intercept, emails accessed by it shows that the editor-in-chief of the journal was slow in responding to several controversial papers related to Tibetans, Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in China. Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine is published by Wiley, a New Jersey based company, and the company also took a long time to respond to concerns about the papers published by the journal.
The papers under question were first flagged by Yves Moreau, a Professor of Engineering and a bioinformatician at the University of Leuven in Belgium, and according to The Intercept, he has been fighting a tireless campaign to get journals to retract troubling or unethical papers. He has been successful in getting an order of Kuwait govt overturned, which had called for compulsory DNA collection from all citizens.
He was studying the DNA profiling of the minorities done by the Chinese authorities. During such searches, he found 18 papers published by Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine, which dealt with various genetic topics related to the people in China. Some analysed the genetic differences between ethnic groups, including the genetic gaps between the majority Han community and minorities like Tibetans and Hui Muslims, and some had relied on samples that Moreau suspects were collected without proper consent.
Many of the papers were related to forensic genetics, a problematic subject in the entire scientific community. It refers to the collection of DNA for forensic databases, which is used by the police in criminal investigations. But although in theory it should be used only to find suspect criminals, it has the potential to conduct racial profiling, a highly problematic area. Moreover, scientists also worry about collection of DNA sample from ethnic minorities without their consent, which is happening in China.
The Chinese government is already DNA from its male citizens to build a massive a national forensic DNA database. Reportedly, the Communist government aims to collect and store genetic profiles of around 70 million people, around 10% of the country’s male population. Apart from that, Chinese police also forcibly collecting DNA samples from ordinary citizens, including migrant workers, dissidents, and minority Uyghur Muslims.
Although the Chinese govt says it is being done to fight crimes, researchers don’t believe that, they say it is a part of the government efforts to “deepen” social control. Although most western countries collect DNA sample of convicts, the collection of such samples from ordinary citizens have been described as unprecedented. Human Rights Activists say the only purpose of this genetic profiling is the oppression of ethnic minorities by the Chinese govt.
This concern is being raised because of the kind of data collected by the Chinese govt. They are cataloguing markers known as short tandem repeats (STRs), which are repeating regions of DNA that are specific to the Y chromosome found in men. These STRs are extremely similar between men in the same male lineage, which means, when the authorities nab a dissident man, they can track all his male relatives using the database, even if they are not identified as relatives in official documents.
Since 2019, Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine has published several papers authored by Chinese authors on the topic of forensic genetics, which means they used samples collected by the police, many of which could be done without consent. Many of the papers listed institutions as co-authors which work closely with the police or receive funding from the police. One paper even lists the Public Security Bureau in Tibet as the co-author, which is the police agency in the region.
All these show that the research papers published by the American journal were effectively authored or sponsored by the Chinese govt.
After discovering the papers, Yves Moreau had written in March this year to Suzanne Hart, the journal’s editor-in-chief and deputy director at the medical genetics and genomic medicine training program with the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute. He noted that before 2019, the journal had published only two papers on forensic genetic studies from outside China, which shows that the Chinese govt has specifically identified the journal where the papers on forensic genetic studies of vulnerable Tibetan and Muslim minorities can be published.
However, although Suzanne Hart acknowledged the mail and promised to look into the matter, he received no update for months after that. As a result, he wrote to the entire Editorial Board in June, describing the concerns with the papers published by them. Many of the board members agreed with him for a probe in the matter, and many said that they were not even aware of the papers.
When the board members wrote to Hart, she said she will get back with further information on how the management intends to address this issue. But when no communication came from her for several weeks, the board members started to resign in protest. Ophir Klein, a board member and a pediatric medical geneticist at the University of California San Francisco said that he left the board as he was really concerned about the lack of communication.
However, not all editorial board members who question the paper have resigned, some have decided to stay on to push for scrutiny of the papers, including Joris Veltman, the dean of the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University Medical School in UK. After he wrote to the management escalating the issue, they responded that Wiley would begin an investigation immediately.
After that, the company released a statement saying that the Integrity in Publishing Group of the company was overseeing the matter. However, they informed that they are only contacting with the authors and the institutional review boards associated with the published papers to clarify the consent procedures undertaken for collecting the DNA samples.
Although the consent was a major issue, it was not the only one. The company kept silence on the much larger issue of use of scientific instruments in racial profiling and discrimination by authoritarian governments. Moreau said the focus on consent is too narrow, and the larger question is whether the journal should be publishing research on vulnerable minorities, some of which directly involves the authorities persecuting them.
The board members are saying that if the papers are determined to be unethical, at least they should be retracted.
This is not the first time that Wiley has been accused of allying with China. In September 2000, the editor of another journal published by the company had resigned over the issue of freedom of speech. Prof David Curtis, from University College London’s Genetics Institute, had resigned as the editor-in-chief of the Annals of Human Genetics, after he was prevented from publishing an article which said that academic journals should boycott papers from China protesting against China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.
Wiley, and Lancet which also refused to published the article, had said that publication of the article could pose difficulties for their offices in China. Yves Moreau was one of the co-authors of the article.