Eight members of the editorial board of a scientific journal have resigned after it published a slew of controversial papers that critics fear 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 controversy involving ethically fraught research. Emails obtained by The Intercept show that the journal’s editor-in-chief has been slow to respond to queries about the papers, which involve research on Tibetans and Uyghurs, among other ethnic groups, and were first brought to her attention in March. The journal is published by Wiley, a multinational company based in New Jersey that is one of the world’s premier scientific publishers.

Studies involving DNA profiling, facial recognition, and organ transplantation have sparked controversy at other journals, but this is the first time that so many members of a journal’s editorial board — eight of 25 — have resigned in response to such issues.

Yves Moreau at Thermodynamics Institute, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium, February 4, 2020.

Yves Moreau is seen at the Thermodynamics Institute at the University of Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, on Feb. 4, 2020.

Photo: Lies Willaert

The papers were flagged by Yves Moreau, a bioinformatician at the University of Leuven in Belgium who over the past few years has waged a tireless campaign to get journals to retract troubling or unethical papers.

Moreau’s quest began in 2015, when Kuwait announced plans for compulsory collection of DNA from all citizens, residents, and visitors. He helped spearhead an international campaign against the law and won an early victory when it was overturned the following year. He became convinced that if left unchecked, science and artificial intelligence would be used to further authoritarianism. “In technology, we have this nice, comfortable geek image,” he said. “But when you really look at the history of technology, you see that it has been a nexus of power forever — for at least 2,000 years.” While many geneticists have worked for decades to overturn the idea that race is a scientific concept, Moreau saw that authorities around the world could exploit new technologies like readily available DNA testing for political gain.

Moreau later turned his attention to DNA profiling in China, particularly in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been interned in camps or forced into labor. Authorities there have also collected DNA samples from residents. Moreau periodically runs an automated search for papers on ethically charged topics. Earlier this year, that search turned up 18 papers at Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine.

Some of the papers describe genetic differences between ethnic groups. Police can use such research for DNA profiling, to better match crime suspects with DNA samples from the broader population. Other papers relied on samples that Moreau suspected were taken without proper consent. The Chinese government has been collecting DNA from men of all ethnicities, with the aim of building out genetic information for all 700 million males in China. Chinese police also forcibly collect DNA from certain groups, including migrant workers and political dissidents.

While Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine isn’t a leading outlet for genetic research, it has an impact factor of 2.183, meaning that its papers are cited and read by other scientists. The Wiley name lends it an imprimatur of respectability.

As its title suggests, the journal was founded to focus on genetics research with medical applications. Many of the editorial board members study how genetics can help doctors treat patients or help scientists cure disease. But in 2019, the journal started publishing papers by authors in China on forensic genetics, a field that involves close collaboration with police. Forensic genetics has long been controversial in the United States. It is even more problematic in China, where DNA collection is part of a sustained effort to persecute ethnic minorities and other groups.

The title of one paper published by the journal is “Forensic characteristics and genetic affinity analyses of Xinjiang Mongolian group using a novel six fluorescent dye-labeled typing system including 41-Y-STRs and 3 Y-InDels.” Another maps genetic differences between branches of China’s majority ethnic group, Han Chinese, and other groups, including Tibetans and Hui Muslims. Several of the papers list co-authors or funding from institutions affiliated with Chinese police. One lists a co-author from the Public Security Bureau in Tibet, the police agency in the region.

A figure purporting to represent the genetic distance between/among various ethnic groups, including Uyghur groups.

A graphic published in the journal Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine purports to represent the genetic distance between various ethnic groups, including Uyghur groups.

Credit: onlinelibrary.wiley.com

In March, Moreau detailed his concerns in an email 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 since it was founded in 2013, the journal had published only two forensic genetic studies from outside China. “This suggests that MGGM has been specifically identified as a journal where forensic population genetic studies of vulnerable Tibetan and [M]uslim minorities can be published,” he wrote.

Hart replied the next day. “I am looking into this matter and will respond shortly,” she wrote. Moreau sent several follow-up emails. But months passed without an update, he told The Intercept.

On Tuesday, in response to questions from The Intercept, the Wiley public affairs office emailed a statement from Hart. “We are actively investigating and driving toward a timely, transparent resolution,” Hart said. “We take the concerns expressed extremely seriously and regret that delayed communications may have indicated otherwise.”

In June, Moreau took the issue to the entire editorial board. In a lengthy email, he listed the suspect papers and explained how police in China use forensic genetics.

Other board members echoed his calls for an investigation. Several said they were not actively involved in the journal’s work and had no idea that the papers had even been published. The journal’s editorial board positions are honorary; scientists often sit on multiple boards at once.

In emails obtained by The Intercept, Hart wrote to the board that same day, explaining that she had experienced a death in her family and had drafted a message to Moreau that ended up trapped in her outbox. “I will send a message soon outlining our decision on how to address this issue,” she wrote.

A few weeks later, when she had not provided any further explanation to the board or to Moreau, board members started resigning.

“I would have wanted to hear much more quickly from the editorial staff,” said Ophir Klein, a pediatric medical geneticist at the University of California San Francisco and one of the board members who quit. The lack of communication “made me really concerned,” he added.

The lack of communication “made me really concerned.”

Another board member, Joris Veltman, told The Intercept that he has remained on the board so that he can push for scrutiny of the papers. On July 7, Veltman, who is the dean of the Biosciences Institute at Newcastle University Medical School in the United Kingdom, escalated the issue by emailing Wiley’s management. The publisher’s director of research integrity, Chris Graf, responded that Wiley would begin an investigation immediately. Veltman asked why Wiley had waited so long.

In a statement, a Wiley spokesperson wrote that the company’s Integrity in Publishing Group was overseeing the matter. “We have completed the first step of the investigation, which is to assess concerns vis-à-vis our publishing standards,” the statement read. “We are now proceeding to connect with the authors and the institutional review boards associated with the papers to clarify the consent procedures for the research undertaken.” The spokesperson said that the company could not provide a timeline for the investigation, beyond to say that it would likely continue into September.

Moreau said the focus on consent is too narrow. The larger question, he said, is whether the journal should be publishing research on vulnerable minorities, some of which directly involves the authorities persecuting them. Klein, the board member, said that if the research is determined to be unethical, “at a minimum it should be retracted.”

Moreau is not holding his breath. He has previously secured retractions from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, known as IEEE, and Springer Nature, two other major scientific publishers, but Wiley has declined to retract a paper on ethnicity and facial recognition that he and others flagged in 2019. In September 2020, the journal, WIREs Data Mining and Knowledge Discovery, issued an expression of concern. The note focuses only on possible misrepresentation of a data set and figure in the article, not 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 declined to publish a letter he co-authored with Moreau and others proposing that his and other journals boycott papers from China. In turning down the letter, Wiley senior managers said that publishing it could cause problems for its China office, he told the paper.

Moreau said he will persist. “At this point, you cannot stay silent,” he told the Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine editorial board in one email. “This situation is creating a shameful embarrassment that reflects poorly on all medical genetics journals and on the entire medical genetics community. Public trust in human genetics depends on our community’s ability to transparently abide by its moral duty.”