Publishers vow new checks on China surveillance research

Publishers vow new checks on China surveillance research

Springer Nature and Wiley have said they will re-evaluate papers they have previously published on ethnic minority groups in China, written by scientists with the backing of the Chinese government, after concerns were raised in an article published this week by the journal Nature, as well as by the New York Times.

The journal article, by Belgian engineering professor Dr Yves Moreau, raised concerns about genomic surveillance, warning that DNA-profiling technology was aiding human rights abuses.

Moreau said DNA profiling used for state surveillance was most prominent in China, arguing: "Here police are using a national DNA database along with other kinds of surveillance data, such as from video cameras and facial scanners, to monitor the minority Muslim Uyghur population in the western province of Xinjiang." He warned: "Researchers working on biometric identification technologies should consider more deeply how their inventions could be used. And editors, reviewers and publishers must do more to ensure that published research on biometric identification has been done in an ethical way....We are very concerned about research involving vulnerable populations and have been assessing and initiating appropriate actions, at a practical and policy level."

Springer Nature - which itself publishes Nature - has responded to the concerns, saying editorial notes are being added this week to two relevant published papers: "The Springer Nature Research Integrity Group established a search of the entire portfolio of Springer Nature journals and all instances of non-compliance will result in appropriate editorial action, which may include retraction. Editorial notes stating that concerns have been raised regarding informed consent should be added to the two papers this week," it said.

The publisher also said it was strengthening policies "to help journal editors and authors to be aware of sensitivities and requirements relating to vulnerable groups and providing additional organisational support where issues are encountered. We are in the process of contacting editors across our journals (prioritising those for which this information is most relevant) to alert them to the updates in our policies, and to request that they exercise an extra level of scrutiny and care in handling papers where there is a potential that consent was not informed or freely given. We offer advice and support to editors who may be concerned about a submission, including in requesting and scrutinising consent forms or other documentary evidence related to consent.  We have also sought to ensure that it is clear to our authors and editors that the need for consent applies to biometric data as well as clinical data."

Springer Nature also vowed to do more with papers coming out of conference proceedings, though it noted editorial oversight sits with conference organisers.  "Going forward, we will be strengthening our requirements of conference organisers, namely that they ensure that proceedings also comply with Springer Nature’s editorial policies (see and that this is communicated by them to their authors.  We will reserve the right to retract any proceedings that do not comply with our policies, or not to publish them if they are identified prior to publication."

According to the New York Times, in September Moreau and colleagues asked Wiley to retract a paper on minorities it published last year, citing a potential for abuse. and the issue of consent of those involved in the study. The newspaper said Wiley initially declined to do this, but has this week said it will reconsider. Wiley has yet to comment directly to The Bookseller.

Elsevier spokesperson Tom Reller said in a statement: "Forensic Science International: Genetics and Forensic Science International: Genetics Supplement Series are aware of these issues in forensic genetics publishing. All authors publishing across both journals are required to comply with requisite ethical standards and we are currently in the process of producing more comprehensive guidelines alongside our affiliated society, the International Society for Forensic Genetics, for the publication of genetic data."  He noted that Elsevier was "unable to control the potential misuse of population data articles (or indeed any article) by third parties after publication", saying: "Generally, population frequencies are extremely important in the forensic sciences and serve a vital purpose for law enforcement and in civil and criminal cases".

"That said, we take ethical issues extremely seriously and will review the integrity of published articles per the guidelines set out by the Committee on Publication Ethics when specific details emerge, especially if there is evidence of grave data misuse," Reller added.