By Wendy A Rogers, Angela Ballantyne, Wendy C Higgins, Wendy Lipworth.
Our paper in JME investigates the pros and cons of publishing and/or retracting unethical biomedical research. We focus on Chinese transplant research using organs procured from non-consenting executed prisoners. However, this is not the only topic currently raising questions about the justifiability of publishing of unethical research. Recent publication of data from Jiankui He’s widely condemned gene editing experiments has triggered vigorous debate about the probity of publication. Likewise, there are ethical concerns about publication of biometric data collected from Uyghurs living under political surveillance and repression. These contemporary examples have breathed new life into debates about how to deal with unethical research and whether publication is ever justified.
We became interested in the arguments about publishing unethical research following publication of a 2019 scoping review of transplant research conducted in China, on which two of us were authors (WR, AB). The scoping review assessed 445 published studies reporting on outcomes of 85,477 transplants. It found that 92.5% of the published papers failed to state whether or not organs were sourced from executed prisoners, while 99% failed to report whether or not organ sources gave consent for transplantation. These omissions reflect significant breaches of accepted international ethical standards that ban publication of research using material from executed prisoners.
In this current paper, we argue that while it might sometimes be justified to publish unethical research that is historical, publication is not justified and/or retraction is warranted when research-related ethical abuses are ongoing. The recent China Tribunal found evidence of substantial and continuing forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China. Given the Tribunal’s finding, there is every reason to be concerned about publishing contemporary Chinese transplant research. Doing so undermines efforts to stop transplant-related human rights abuses, taints the evidence base, and renders those who publish and use the research complicit in the continuing harm. As Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Chair of the Tribunal noted, addressing these abuses requires action rather than “wilful ‘blindness’ or ‘deafness,’ ‘pragmatic’ silence and inactivity”.
We therefore call on the international transplantation community, including journal editors and peer-reviewers to take action. First, following the example of the journals Transplantation and PLoS One, the remaining papers identified in the scoping review should be investigated and retracted. Second, we call on editors and publishers to declare an immediate moratorium on publishing Chinese solid organ transplant research. Publication cannot be justified, as it is currently impossible to verify that any Chinese transplant research uses only ethically procured organs from volunteers. Third, we recommend an international summit for all relevant stakeholders, to determine future policy on handling transplant research from China.
Publication and retraction are not mere academic matters. They are potentially powerful tools in combatting human rights abuses when those abuses are part and parcel of unethical research.
Author(s): Higgins WC1, Rogers WA1, Ballantyne A2 and Lipworth W3.
- Philosophy Department, Macquarie University, Sydney
- Centre for Biomedical Ethics, National University of Singapore; and Department of Primary Health Care and General Practice [Wellington], and Bioethics Centre [Dunedin], University of Otago, New Zealand
- Sydney Health Ethics, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia
Competing interests: Wendy Rogers is a Director of the NGO “International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China” and is chair of its international advisory committee. Angela Ballantyne is a member of the International Advisory Committee and the New Zealand Advocacy & Initiatives Committee (NZAIC) of the International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China.