Publishers urged to take stronger stance on Uighur persecution

Scholars say ensuring vulnerable minorities have given consent to use of their data does not go far enough

January 4, 2020
Source: Getty
Surveilled ‘systems used against Uighurs are now in many cases being linked directly to joint research projects with universities and companies in the West,’ says one scholar

Academics are pushing journal publishers to take more drastic action in response to China’s crackdown on minority Muslims in the wake of increasing scrutiny over the global science community’s role in the continued persecution.

There have been rising concerns over Western journals’ publication of papers focusing on the DNA of minority ethnic groups by Chinese scientists affiliated with the country’s surveillance agencies.

More than 1 million Uighurs and other members of predominantly Muslim minority groups are believed to have been locked up in internment camps and there are worries that this research is being used to build databases, facial recognition systems and other methods for monitoring these groups.

Rachel Harris, professor in ethnomusicology at SOAS University of London, whose research focuses on Uighurs, said that more than 10 million Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang were being subjected to compulsory DNA testing and intrusive surveillance, and that the “systems used against Uighurs are now in many cases being linked directly to joint research projects with universities and companies in the West”.

In response, some academic publishers have said that they will review their guidelines and re-evaluate papers published on Uighurs and other minority groups.

A spokeswoman at Springer Nature said that the publisher was “very concerned about research which involves consent from vulnerable populations”.

“All instances of non-compliance with our policies will result in appropriate editorial action, which may include retraction. Editorial notes stating that concerns have been raised regarding informed consent have been added to two papers,” she added.

The publisher was also in the process of requesting that editors “exercise an extra level of scrutiny and care in handling papers where there is potential that consent was not informed or freely given” and conference proceedings will now need to comply with Springer Nature’s editorial policies.

Meanwhile, Elsevier said that it was “in the process of developing more comprehensive guidelines for facial recognition research” and that authors are required to comply with ethical standards for informed consent; Wiley said that it would “work actively with other publishers to ensure our industry maintains its critical focus on fairness and academic responsibility”; and Taylor & Francis said that it was “in the process of assessing our content to take any actions necessary”.

But academics have claimed that these responses do not go far enough.

Joanne Smith Finley, senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Newcastle University, said that it was “far from adequate or ethical to ask authors whether they sought consent from their research subjects”, given that the collection of biometric data in Xinjiang in 2017 was carried out under “false pretences” and citizens will “agree to anything in order to keep themselves and their families out of the internment camps”.

She added that any academic papers that rely on data collected in this manner should be immediately retracted and publishers must “look very carefully at the sponsors” of conference proceedings before publication.

“In general, journal publishers must scrutinise potential authors to a) ensure that they have an authentic scholarly affiliation and are engaged in authentic academic research…and b) understand the precise manner in which data has been collected, and from which subjects in what context,” she said.

Professor Harris agreed that “requesting assurances of consent is not an adequate response”.

“Funders and journals need to boycott these research collaborations until such a time as the Xinjiang re-education camps are closed down,” she said.

Henryk Szadziewski, senior researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said that publishers should focus “their energies on requesting information regarding the whereabouts and condition of disappeared Uighur researchers who have published in their journals”.

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