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Ethics concerns over Oxford University Press journal study based on Uyghur DNA

Oxford University Press (OUP), a department of the University of Oxford, is facing scrutiny after a study published by one of its journals was flagged for using DNA collected from the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Two further studies by Chinese researchers, published by the same journal under OUP, are also under investigation for potential violations of ethical standards. 

The three studies in question were published in Forensic Sciences Research, a journal owned by the Academy of Forensic Science, which is a part of China’s Ministry of Justice. OUP announced that it would take over the journal in August 2022, and appears to have officially run it since January 2023. OUP did not offer more information on the acquisition. 

The papers were initially flagged by Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at KU Leuven, a Belgian University, where he has spent the past five years investigating Chinese researchers’ collection of genetic data from vulnerable groups. The papers include one published in June 2022, before the journal’s acquisition by OUP, that analysed DNA samples taken from 264 Uyghur people. 

The study states “All biological samples were taken with written informed consent” but experts maintain concerns about ethically obtaining consent. Maya Wang, an associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Guardian: “Given how coercive the overall environment has been for the Uyghurs [in China], it’s not really possible for Uyghurs to say no [to the collection of DNA].”

The study was partly supported by a research grant from Xinjiang Police College. The author of the paper, Dr Halimureti Simayijiang (a Uyghur name), is affiliated with the Xinjiang Police College and the University of Copenhagen. Another of his studies, published in 2019, was retracted after its DNA samples, also from Uyghurs, were found not to be covered by proper ethics approvals. The 2019 study’s stated purpose was to assist police in identifying suspects using genetic sequencing. 

A second study, published in December, 2023, involved 50 “bloodstain” samples taken from Xibe ethnic minority individuals. 

OUP stated: “Each of our journals has a board of editors who make independent decisions about the articles they publish, following industry standards on peer review and research ethics.” The study states that ethical approvals came from “the Ethical Committee of China Medical University”. None of the researchers was based there at the time of publication. 

A third study, also published in December 2023, also involves Xibe samples. Authors of both studies, Fei Guo and Yang Xin respectively, were both based at the Criminal Investigation Police University of China, Shenyang. 

The Forensic Sciences Research journal also published DNA profiles of the Xibe participants, likely breaching rules of consent under the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

The OUP stated: “We agree that these articles warrant further investigation. We are undertaking that investigation at the moment.” They are not taking down the articles while the investigations are ongoing, but “will be publishing expressions of concern” alongside each of them. 

This comes after a series of similar controversies in science journals surrounding Uyghur consent. In 2021, David Curtis of University College London resigned as editor-in-chief of the journal Annals of Human Genetics after his publisher, Wiley, refused to publish an article suggesting that academic journals should take a stance against China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang. He said he could not trust claims that participants in Chinese studies had freely given their consent. 

In 2021, after Moreau raised similar concerns about Uyghur consent in papers published by the journal Molecular Genetics and Genomic Medicine, also a subsidiary of Wiley, nine members of the editorial board of the journal resigned

UK universities have been accused of compromising their integrity for financial benefits from cooperation with China. A July report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament stated that an estimated 120,000 Chinese students in the UK “are responsible for generating almost £600m [annually] – a very significant proportion of universities’ income. China is actively using this income as leverage to gain political influence and control and to direct the narrative.” 

The University and Vice-Chancellor were approached for comment but directed questions to the OUP. 

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