A leading genetics journal has retracted 18 papers from China due to concerns about human rights violations related to the collection of DNA samples used in the studies. The retractions from Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine (MGGM) represent the largest mass withdrawal of academic papers over ethical issues in China to date.

MGGM is published by Wiley, a major US academic publisher. The journal’s editor-in-chief, Suzanne Hart, made the decision to retract the papers after a lengthy review process spanning over two years. Investigators found inconsistencies between the details reported in the studies and the consent documentation provided by the researchers regarding the DNA samples they used (1).

Many of the retracted studies utilized genetic material from vulnerable minority populations in China, including Uyghurs and Tibetans. Experts and human rights groups have raised alarms about these populations being coerced or unable to provide meaningful informed consent for DNA collection. Several of the studies’ authors also had concerning ties to Chinese public security agencies.

“Several of the researchers are associated with public security authorities in China, a fact that voids any notion of free, informed consent,” said Yves Moreau, a professor of engineering at the University of Leuven in Belgium who studies DNA analysis and first brought concerns about the papers to the journal in March 2021 (1).

Details on Retracted Papers

One of the retracted papers analyzed the genetics of 120 Tibetans living in Lhasa using blood samples (2). The study claimed the participants provided written informed consent and approval was obtained from the ethics committee at Fudan University in Shanghai.

However, the retraction notice stated there were “inconsistencies between the consent documentation and the research reported” and the documentation lacked sufficient details to resolve the ethical concerns (2). Several co-authors on the study were affiliated with Chinese public security agencies, including the Tibetan public security authorities.

Tibet is considered one of the most oppressed and tightly controlled regions in China. Human Rights Watch has reported severe restrictions on freedoms of religion, expression, movement, and assembly in Tibet (3).

Another retracted study examined the genetics of 340 Uyghurs in Xinjiang province using blood samples. The paper stated the genetic data could serve as a resource for forensic DNA analysis and population genetics research (4).

However, the collection of biometric data from Uyghurs has been highly controversial given credible reports of human rights abuses against this minority group in Xinjiang (5). In 2021, over 25 editors resigned from MGGM in protest over concerns about papers utilizing Uyghur DNA (1).

Ethical Guidelines and Oversight

The large number of retractions from MGGM highlights the need for more rigorous ethical guidelines and oversight of genetics research utilizing samples from vulnerable populations. Although MGGM claims it does not publish forensic genetics papers, many of the now-retracted studies included authors affiliated with Chinese law enforcement and security agencies.

“MGGM states that its scope is human molecular and medical genetics. It primarily publishes studies on the medical applications of genetics such as a recent paper on genetic disorders linked to hearing loss. The sudden pivot towards publishing forensic genetics research from China came as other forensic genetics journals started facing more scrutiny for publishing research based on DNA samples from vulnerable minorities in China,” explained Professor Moreau (1).

Some experts argue that mid-tier journals like MGGM, which are perceived as less prestigious but easier to publish in, may need extra oversight when it comes to ethics and quality control.

“This case underscores the need for scientific journals, especially those without extensive expertise in ethical and legal standards for genetics research, to closely scrutinize studies using biological samples from vulnerable populations,” said Dr. Lawrence Kim, a medical ethicist at Yale University (6). “No amount of interesting scientific data is worth compromising ethics and human rights.”

China’s Research Landscape

The retractions also come amid China’s rapidly growing scientific output over the past decade. China now rivals and even surpasses the US and EU in total research publications (7). However, concerns remain about ethical oversight, academic integrity, and the Chinese government’s influence on universities and journals.

“As China aims to become a global leader in science and technology, maintaining research integrity and public trust is critical,” said Dr. Kim. “Upholding ethical standards, even at the cost of retracting promising publications, ultimately strengthens the scientific endeavor.”

The Wiley retractions occurred just days before a Chinese government deadline requiring universities to report all academic paper retractions from the past three years. A recent analysis found nearly 14,000 retraction notices in 2022, with around 75% involving at least one Chinese co-author (8).

Wiley stated it aims to handle complex, multi-paper investigations as swiftly as possible while carefully reviewing all information. But experts say transparency and protecting human subjects must remain the top priority, no matter the pace or pressure of China’s research boom.

It is essential to note that the retraction of these papers is not just a setback for the authors and the journal, but it also serves as a cautionary tale for the broader scientific community. It emphasizes the importance of ethical considerations in research, particularly when it involves human participants. The scientific community must ensure that the pursuit of knowledge does not come at the expense of human rights and dignity.

Furthermore, the incident has sparked a broader discussion about the role of academic journals in policing the ethics of the research they publish. It raises questions about the responsibility of journals to vet the research they disseminate and the mechanisms they have in place to detect ethical breaches. The retractions by MGGM may prompt other journals to reevaluate their policies and procedures to prevent similar issues from arising in the future.


  1. Hawkins, A. (2024). Genetics journal retracts 18 papers from China due to human rights concerns. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/feb/15/china-retracts-papers-molecular-genetics-genomic-medicine
  2. Xie, J. et al. (2021). Population structure of Tibetans in China: Insights from 15 autosomal STRs. Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine, 9(9). https://doi.org/10.1002/mgg3.1737
  3. Human Rights Watch. (2023). World report 2023: China. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2023/country-chapters/china-and-tibet#
  4. Li, Y. et al. (2020). Genetic variation analysis of 20 STR loci in Chinese Uyghur population from southern Xinjiang, China. Molecular Genetics & Genomic Medicine, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.1002/mgg3.1338
  5. Zenz, A. & Leibold, J. (2020). Sterilizations, forced abortions, and mandatory birth control: The CCP’s campaign to suppress Uyghur birthrates in Xinjiang. Jamestown Foundation. https://jamestown.org/product/sterilizations-forced-abortions-and-mandatory-birth-control-the-ccps-campaign-to-suppress-uyghur-birthrates-in-xinjiang/
  6. Dr. Lawrence Kim, medical ethicist. Yale University. Personal communication. February 18, 2024.
  7. Tollefson, J. (2018). China declared world’s largest producer of scientific articles. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-00927-4
  8. Van Noorden, R. (2023). Mass retractions shake Chinese academia. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-023-00135-7

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