Study of China’s ethnic minorities retracted as dozens of papers come under scrutiny for ethical violations

A legal journal has retracted a 2019 article on the facial genetics of ethnic minorities in China for ethics violations, and the publisher, Springer Nature, is investigating more than two dozen other articles for similar concerns. 

The article, “Y Chromosomal STR haplotypes in Chinese Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui ethnic groups and genetic features of DYS448 null allele and DYS19 duplicated allele,” appeared in the International Journal of Legal Medicine.

Three of the authors were affiliated with the notorious Karamay Municipal Public Security Bureau, which the U.S. government hit with sanctions in October 2019 for being

implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR.

According to the retraction notice

This article [1] has been retracted at the request of the corresponding author, Yi Ye, after concerns were raised regarding the ethics approval and consent procedures. The corresponding author informed the Publisher that contrary to the ethics statement in the article, the study was undertaken without the approval of their institutional ethics committee. As the study fails to meet the ethical standards required by the Journal, it has been retracted.Yi Ye and Danyan Zhang agree to this retraction. Gang Cao, Mingkun Xie, Xuejun Cui, Li Xiao and Chenchen Tian have not responded to correspondence about this retraction.

We emailed Ye for comment but did not hear back. 

Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at KU Leuven in Belgium, who has assembled a dossier of roughly 80 papers about DNA fingerprinting in China, in order to expose their ethical shortcomings, told us: 

There are over 100 scientific articles on forensic population genetics of highly vulnerable minorities (Tibetan and Muslim minorities) involving at least one co-author from the Chinese police (called public security), the judiciary, or related institutions (such as Xinjiang Police College or Railway Police College). When reported to the size of the population (i.e., number of papers studying a given population divided by the number of people of this population), Tibetans are studied 40 times, and Uyghurs 30 times, more intensely than Hans. About half of all forensic population genetics papers (i.e., papers characterizing the genetic diversity with methods suitable for law enforcement) have at least one co-author from Chinese police, the judiciary, or related institutions. It is impossible to carry out academic research on forensic population genetics in China, so that about 1,000 scientific articles need to be ethically reassessed.

He added: 

Since July, the Xinjiang public security authorities are subject to Magnitsky sanctions in the US, so that most transactions involving Xinjiang public security are forbidden for US citizens.

Suzanne Farley, the research integrity director for Springer Nature, told us that the publisher has been investigating “a number” of papers with similar ethics problems: 

The retraction of the paper Y Chromosomal STR haplotypes in Chinese Uyghur, Kazakh and Hui ethnic groups and genetic features of DYS448 null allele and DYS19 duplicated allele followed the completion of the investigation of that paper.

Notifications of ongoing investigations (Editor’s notes) have been posted on a further 17 International Journal of Legal Medicine papers, 2 Human Genetics papers and 9 Scientific Reports papers.  A number of other papers are also under consideration.   Editorial action will be taken as appropriate in each case once the investigation of the concerns is complete and all parties have been given an opportunity to respond in full.

We take seriously the concerns that have been raised. Since these issues came to light, we have started to proactively identify papers of potential concern, have strengthened our policies to help editors and authors to be aware of sensitivities and requirements relating to vulnerable groups and communicated this directly to all Editors in Chief, and are providing additional support from our Research Integrity Group to editors where concerns are raised. 

Here are a few of those notices, which appeared in February: 

Springer Nature uses editor’s notes and expressions of concern (EOC) equivalently, but while EOCs are indexed, and therefore more widely disseminated, Springer Nature requires a formal response from the author(s) for EOCs, making them slower.

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8 thoughts on “Study of China’s ethnic minorities retracted as dozens of papers come under scrutiny for ethical violations”

  1. All Chinese authored publications on ethnic minorities in China (Uyghur, Tibet, Kazakh, Hui) should be retracted from scientific literature. These minorities are not in a position to give publication consent, which would be either lacking or obtained by force or coercion. Additional consent from internationally recognized minority representatives should be required for future publications, much like the IRB requirements for prisoner research subjects .

  2. Did you find out *when* the paper was retracted? There doesn’t seem to be any date on the retraction statement.

    1. We’ve noted that as a growing problem at many publishers, including Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature, when they overwrite the HTML of the original paper.

  3. I’d be interested in seeing copies of the purported written “consents” given by subjects of studies performed by researchers whose work is monitored by CCP officials. I’d wager a full objective investigation would discover these consents are not informed or voluntary.

  4. Retraction Note: Differentiation analysis for estimating individual ancestry from the Tibetan Plateau by an archaic altitude adaptation EPAS1 haplotype among East Asian populations

    “The Editors-in-Chief have retracted this article. Since publication, concerns were raised about the ethics and consent procedures for this study. We requested supporting documentation from the authors, including the application form submitted to the ethics committee and evidence of ethics approval. The documents supplied by the authors contain insufficient information related to the scope of the study for us to remain confident that the protocols complied with our editorial policies or are in line with international ethical standards [1].

    Caixia Li stated on behalf of all co-authors that they do not agree to this retraction.”

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