Journal’s board members resign after controversial articles
Eight members of the editorial board of a scientific journal resigned after publishing a series of controversial articles that critics say could be used for DNA profiling and persecution of ethnic minorities in China.
The journal, Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine, is the latest to be caught up in a controversy involving ethically heavy research. Emails obtained by The Intercept show that the newspaper’s editor has been slow to respond to questions about the articles, which involve research on Tibetans and Uyghurs, among other ethnic groups, and have been brought to his attention. for the first time in March. The journal is published by Wiley, a New Jersey-based multinational corporation that is one of the world’s leading science publishers.
Studies of DNA profiling, facial recognition and organ transplantation have sparked controversy in other journals, but this is the first time that so many journal editorial board members – eight out of 25 – resign in response to such problems.
Photo: Lies Willaert
The articles were pointed out by Yves Moreau, a bioinformatician at the University of Louvain in Belgium who over the past few years has campaigned tirelessly for journals to retract troubling or unethical articles.
Moreau’s quest began in 2015, when Kuwait announced its intention to compulsorily collect DNA from all citizens, residents and visitors. He helped lead an international campaign against the law and won an early victory when it was quashed the following year. He became convinced that if nothing was done, science and artificial intelligence would be used to reinforce authoritarianism. “In tech, we have this beautiful image of a comfy geek,” he said. “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.” While many geneticists have worked for decades to overturn the idea that breed is a scientific concept, Moreau saw that authorities around the world could exploit new technologies like readily available DNA testing for political purposes.
Moreau then became interested in DNA profiling in China, particularly in Xinjiang, where around 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been interned in camps or forced into labor. Authorities also collected DNA samples from residents there. Moreau periodically launches an automated search for articles on ethical topics. Earlier this year, that research revealed 18 papers at Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine.
Some of the 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 documents relied on samples that Moreau suspected had been taken without the proper consent. The Chinese government has collected DNA from men of all ethnicities, with the aim of gathering genetic information for the 700 million men in China. Chinese police are also forcibly collecting DNA from certain groups, including migrant workers and political dissidents.
Although molecular genetics and genomic medicine are not a prominent outlet for genetic research, it has an impact factor of 2.183, which means its papers are being cited and read by other scientists. The name Wiley gives it an imprint of respectability.
As the title suggests, the journal was founded to focus on genetic research with medical applications. Many members of the editorial board are studying how genetics can help doctors treat patients or help scientists cure disease. But in 2019, the journal began publishing articles by Chinese authors on forensic genetics, an area that involves close collaboration with the police. Forensic genetics have long been controversial in the United States. It’s even more problematic in China, where DNA collection is part of a sustained effort to persecute ethnic minorities and other groups.
The title of an article published by the journal is “Forensic Characteristics and Genetic Affinity Analyzes of the Mongolian Xinjiang Group Using a New Six-Fluorescent Dye Typing System Comprising 41-Y-STR and 3 Y-InDels ”. Another maps genetic differences between branches of the majority ethnic group in China, the Han Chinese, and other groups, including Tibetans and Hui Muslims. Several of the articles list co-authors or funders from institutions affiliated with the Chinese police. One lists a co-author of the Tibet Public Security Bureau, the region’s police agency.
In March, Moreau detailed his concerns in an email to Suzanne Hart, editor-in-chief of the journal and deputy director of the medical genetics and genomic medicine training program with the National Institute for Human Genome Research at the National Institutes of Health of the United States. He noted that since its inception in 2013, the journal has 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.
Hart responded the next day. “I am investigating this matter and will respond shortly,” she wrote. Moreau sent several follow-up emails. But months have passed without an update, he told The Intercept.
On Tuesday, in response to questions from The Intercept, Wiley’s public affairs office emailed a statement from Hart. “We are actively investigating and driving towards a swift and transparent resolution,” Hart said. “We take the concerns expressed very seriously and regret that late communications may have indicated otherwise.”
In June, Moreau wears the number in front of the entire editorial staff. In a long email, he listed the suspicious papers and explained how the Chinese police use forensic genetics.
Other council members echoed his calls for an investigation. Several said they were not actively involved in the journal’s work and had no idea the articles had even been published. The positions of the editorial board of the journal are honorary; scientists often sit on more than one board at the same time.
In emails obtained by The Intercept, Hart wrote to the board the same day, explaining that she experienced a death in her family and wrote a message to Moreau who found himself trapped in his outbox. . “I will send a message soon outlining our decision on how to resolve this issue,” she wrote.
A few weeks later, when she had not provided any further explanation to the board or to Moreau, the 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. The lack of communication “really worried me,” he added.
The lack of communication “really worried me”.
Another board member, Joris Veltman, told The Intercept he stayed on the board so he could ask for a careful review of the documents. On July 7, Veltman, who is the dean of the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University Medical School in the UK, compounded the problem by emailing Wiley’s management. The publisher’s director of research integrity, Chris Graf, responded that Wiley would immediately begin an investigation. Veltman asked why Wiley had waited so long.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Wiley wrote that the Integrity in Publishing Group was overseeing the case. “We have completed the first step of the investigation, which is to assess concerns about our publication standards,” the statement said. “We are now connecting with the authors and institutional review boards associated with the articles to clarify consent procedures for the research undertaken.” The spokesperson said the company could not provide a timeline for the investigation beyond saying it would likely continue until September.
Moreau said the focus on consent is too narrow. The bigger question, he said, is whether the newspaper should publish research on vulnerable minorities, some of which directly involve the authorities who persecute them. Klein, the board member, said if the research is found to be unethical, “at a minimum, it should be withdrawn.”
Moreau does not hold his breath. He’s already had retractions from the IEEE and Springer Nature, two other major science publishers, but Wiley declined to retract an article on ethnicity and facial recognition that he and others reported in 2019. In September 2020, the journal WIREs Data Mining and Knowledge Discovery, issued an expression of concern. The note focuses only on a possible misrepresentation of a data set and figure in the article, and not on broader ethical issues.
Last month, The Guardian reported that the editor of another Wiley journal, Annals of Human Genetics, resigned in September 2020 after Wiley refused to publish a letter he co-wrote with Moreau and others suggesting that his newspaper and others boycott articles from China. In declining the letter, Wiley’s senior executives said its publication could cause problems for his office in China, he told the newspaper.
Moreau said he will persist. “At this point, you can’t stay silent,” he told the Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine editorial board in an email. “This situation creates a shameful embarrassment that is poorly reflected in all medical genetics journals and the entire medical genetics community. Public confidence in human genetics depends on our community’s ability to transparently comply with its moral duty.