How do we manage knowledge plucked from a poisoned tree? If you think the answer is easy, you have not thought deeply enough about it.
A world-first study has called for the mass retraction of more than 400 scientific papers on organ transplantation, amid fears the organs were obtained unethically from Chinese prisoners.
A report published in 2016 found a large discrepancy between official transplant figures from the Chinese government and the number of transplants reported by hospitals. While the government says 10,000 transplants occur each year, hospital data shows between 60,000 to 100,000 organs are transplanted each year. The report provides evidence that this gap is being made up by executed prisoners of conscience.
Yes, this is one of the oldest questions. ‘Does the end justify the means’? That’s not the exact question, nothing justifies what these people did, but it is glaringly similar. Should these papers stay published because of all the good it might bring to to mankind or should they be retracted because of the means used to find this information?
It’s a complicated question and, while I’m not a philosopher of ethics or whatever it’s called, I don’t think I’d have an answer even if I was.
In this issue, like in every other complicated issue, both sides make some very good points.
Well, the pragmatist within me says: ‘use it, it won’t help anyone if you choose not to’.
But what message does that send? ‘It doesn’t matter how you get them as long as you get results’. No matter that the person or people who did this and any other similar atrocities are going to end up in prison or worse, that is gonna be seen, by all sides, as an attempt to justify what they did. And it might even encourage others to thread the same path.
The people who acted unethically should be punished, but we shouldn’t punish people who could benefit from these studies. That’s the way I look at it. If we can create something good from something bad, and also have strong safeguards already in place, then I think we are acting ethically. No system is perfect and bad actors will always exist, but if we try our hardest to catch and punish them then the data shouldn’t be thrown out.
A good analogy might be money derived from drug busts. The state can seize property from ill-gotten gains and then sell it to support important social programs that benefit the larger community. At the same time, this analogy has some of the same ethical issues, such as incentivizing police forces to target people with lots of property.
Reading through the article in the opening post, what bothers me the most is that these studies should not have gone forward to begin with. It really isn’t a journal’s job to determine if the study was done ethically. That is the job of an IRB and whatever administrative system sits above the IRB’s. The amount of administrative overhead for research in the US is massive which makes me curious about the thoroughness of research oversight in European countries. This seems like a massive failure at the level of government, not at the level of the journals.
The agency overseeing research should demand that researchers do know where those organs are coming from, and have extensive paperwork demonstrating that they were ethically sourced. I suspect the researchers were lied to by the company they were getting organs from. What I hope didn’t happen is that the researchers just went through the motions and got enough paperwork to satisfy research oversight without caring about the actual source of the organs. At least in the US, a publisher looks for references to the researchers approval for the use of organs and they will verify that the research was done with appropriate oversight. It isn’t the job of the publisher to chase down organ suppliers and make sure they aren’t lying to researchers.