Two respected scientific journals have retracted two articles that relied on the DNA samples of Uyghurs in western China after questions were raised about whether the subjects had provided their full consent.
The two studies were published in 2019 by the International Journal of Legal Medicine and Human Genetics, both owned by the academic publisher Springer Nature. They listed numerous authors, including Li Caixia, chief forensic scientist at China’s Ministry of Public Security. The International Journal of Legal Medicine issued its retraction on Tuesday, and Human Genetics released its statement on Aug. 30.
Both studies were at the center of a 2019 article by The New York Times that described how Chinese researchers had analyzed DNA samples from hundreds of Uyghurs for a process called DNA phenotyping, which attempts to recreate a person’s features, including face and height, by relying solely on DNA samples.
Retractions are rare in the academic world. Scientists say the withdrawal of the articles points to broader failures in consent procedures and the need for extra scrutiny involving vulnerable groups such as oppressed minorities. The Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority who live in the Xinjiang region, have been subject to mass incarceration in internment camps and live under heavy surveillance.
For years, several scientists have argued that it would be impossible to verify that members of the minority group had willingly given blood samples for research, especially when officials from the Chinese police were involved. Many Uyghurs told The Times that they had been called up en masse to give blood samples to the government under the guise of a free health check. They said they had no choice but to comply.
Both the International Journal of Legal Medicine and Human Genetics said there had been concerns over “ethics and consent procedures” after the articles were published.
In similarly worded language, the journals said they had “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,” the journals wrote.
The notes published in the International Journal of Legal Medicine and Human Genetics said Dr. Li, the scientist at China’s Ministry of Public Security, disputed the retractions on behalf of the other authors. None of the authors responded to The Times for comment.
Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium who has spearheaded a yearslong campaign for the retraction of articles relying on Uyghur DNA, said he had contacted five academic journals to have such papers withdrawn. Four of them have been retracted so far, which Professor Moreau described as “just scratching the surface.”
He previously analyzed 529 studies from China that involved genetic research and found that, among those published between 2011 and 2018, about half had a co-author who was from the police, military or judiciary.
“These lines are very clear,” Professor Moreau said. “You can’t say: ‘I didn’t know, I didn’t realize and I have no influence.’”
In 2018, Dr. Li told Nature, the scientific journal, that the studies had been approved by the Institute of Forensic Science and that “all individuals provided written informed consent.”
“We are ordinary forensic scientists who carry out forensic research following the scientific research ethics norms,” she wrote.
In May 2020, the U.S. government put Dr. Li’s Institute of Forensic Science on a blacklist that restricts its access to U.S. technology. The United States said the institute was “complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance” against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Springer Nature previously retracted a 2019 article that looked at the DNA samples of China’s male ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs. Three of the authors belonged to the criminal department of the police in Karamay, a city in Xinjiang. In 2019, the U.S. government had put the Karamay police, along with other police departments, on a blacklist for rights abuses in the region.
According to that note, also published in the International Journal of Legal Medicine, the article had been retracted by one of the authors over ethics concerns. “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,” it said.