Hmm: Authors retract paper rather than allow discussion of politics of organ donation in China

transplantationOrgan donation in China, particularly the practice of using organs from executed prisoners, which the government pledged to stop by the middle of this year, has been a controversial subject. For a group of authors in that country and the U.S, a letter criticizing their work that introduced “the political situation of organ donation in China” was cause to retract their own paper.

Here’s the notice in question from Transplantation, for a study published three months ago:

The authors of the article “Factors Behind Negative Attitudes Toward Cadaveric Organ Donation: A Comparison Between Medical and Non-Medical Students in China,” which published ahead of print on May 15, 2014, have retracted the article because the Editors insist on publishing a Letter to the Editor that is critical of the article and that, in view of the authors of the article, is unjustified since it extends to criticism about the political situation of organ donation in China and the failure of the article to take this into account.

Here’s the abstract of the paper, whose corresponding author, Zhang Lei, is a lung transplant surgeon at the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute:


The purposes of this study were to identify knowledge and attitudes held by Chinese university students regarding cadaveric organ donation and to understand the factors that drive negative attitudes.


Questionnaires were delivered to 200 medical and 200 non-medical students chosen by random assignment at Central South University in China.


Of the 400 distributed questionnaires, 369 were completed and returned. Medical students were more likely than non-medical students to have knowledge of cadaveric organ donation, brain death, and its diagnostic criteria, as well as the appropriate time to conduct cadaveric organ donation. Furthermore, medical students were more likely than non-medical students to donate organs after death. For both medical students and non-medical students, family disapproval, public misconception, traditional culture, suspicion of premature withdrawal from life support, lack of knowledge about cadaveric organ donation, concern about inappropriate use of donated organs, and low education degree were associated with their unwillingness to donate cadaveric organs. Meanwhile, religious belief, insufficient laws and regulations, and lack of promotion were associated with medical students’ negative attitude; for non-medical students, negative attitudes were also associated with nontransparent process of donation, sex, only-child, and young age.


Most Chinese student participants in this study held negative attitudes toward cadaveric organ donation. Furthermore, a considerable number of students remained indecisive, thus identifying a group of potential donors for interventionists to address when promoting cadaveric organ donation in the future.

The stated reasons for the retraction of the paper, which also includes authors from Indiana University and Harvard, is troubling. As Michael Woodhead, who posted about the retraction on Sunday, notes:

Retracting a study because of ‘political’ criticism is not in the spirit of science or academic discourse. Being willing and able to defend your work from critical review is one of the foundations of good science. What if Darwin had retracted Origin of the Species because he was unwilling to have John Murray publish a critique of it?

We had asked the authors for comment last week, and have yet to hear back. Also last week, the journal’s editorial office forwarded our questions to their European colleagues. We’ll update with anything we learn.

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

18 thoughts on “Hmm: Authors retract paper rather than allow discussion of politics of organ donation in China”

  1. Why would the journal even honor such a ridiculous retraction request? It’s not like that the authors of a published work have a right to have it pulled whenever they feel like it.

    1. Perhaps because China is the new superpower, so as to not lose business from this massive clientelle and scientist base, it would be better to give in to the personal requests of a few than to have to displease the masses. In other words, the potential corruption of the publisher in favor of the numbers that China brings.

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