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Confronting human rights abuses in the scientific literature

Scientific journals must be accountable for ethically distressing content regardless of when it was published

by David W. Christianson, special to C&EN
April 5, 2022

I find myself wondering at times how ethically distressing content could appear in a highly respected scientific journal. For example, an incendiary essay criticizing efforts to increase diversity in the field of organic synthesis was published in 2020 by Angewandte Chemie but quickly withdrawn after public outcry. The journal issued the following statement: “It is not only our responsibility to spread trusted knowledge, but to also stand against discrimination, injustices and inequity” (DOI: 10.1002/anie.202006717). Unfortunately, injustices abound in the scientific literature, and these injustices include abhorrent human rights abuses. Scientific journals must be accountable for such ethically distressing content regardless of whether it is discovered days or decades after publication. The repercussions of such content continue long after publication, as I have witnessed firsthand.

In 1962, a paper appeared in Science describing radiation experiments performed on children as young as 12 months described as “mentally defective” by doctors from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston University School of Medicine (DOI: 10.1126/science.138.3538.430). These children were patients at the Wrentham State School in Massachusetts, a facility for the residential care of children with developmental disabilities. These children were fed radioactive 131I to explore approaches for the mitigation of 131I uptake from nuclear fallout.

Is it ethical to cite papers in which human rights abuses are clearly documented? . . . Moreover, how should a journal respond to ethically distressing content when it is discovered?
David W. Christianson, and Diana Vagelos Professor in Chemistry and Chemical Biology, University of Pennsylvania

In 2015, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a Radcliffe Fellow and visiting professor at Harvard University. While exploring my family history in Massachusetts, I made the sickening discovery that my late twin sister, Karen, might have been one of the test subjects in these experiments. Karen suffered complications at birth that resulted in severe brain damage, and she was admitted to the Wrentham State School in 1961 for residential care. Was she one of the 20 infants and children 1–3 years old mentioned in the Science paper? Due to poor record keeping, I’ll never know. Karen died 2 months after the paper was published.

A 1994 article in the Harvard Crimson exposed this study, as well as a study conducted by scientists from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the Fernald State School in Waltham, Massachusetts, where radioactive 45Ca was fed to intellectually disabled boys (J. Nutr. 1954, DOI: 10.1093/jn/54.4.523). A 9-year-old boy diagnosed with “terminal gargoylism” was also used as a test subject (J. Clin. Invest. 1958, DOI: 10.1172/JCI103591). He died on day 16 of the experiment, and his remains were subject to postmortem analysis to assess 45Ca uptake in various bones and tissues.

A Massachusetts task force investigated these government-sponsored radiation experiments and concluded that this research “was conducted in violation of the fundamental human rights of the subjects involved.” The US Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments convened by President Bill Clinton affirmed that there were no records of parental authorization for these experiments, concluding, “It might have been common for researchers to take advantage of the convenience of experimenting on institutionalized children, but the Committee does not believe that convenience offsets the moral problems associated with employing these vulnerable children as research subjects—now or decades ago.”

What about the scientific journals that published these shameful studies?

In a valiant step toward accountability, chemist and Science editor in chief Holden Thorp confronted the complicity of his journal in this “regretful past” in a recent editorial (Science 2022, DOI: 10.1126/science.abn8856). He had been unaware when I first brought the Wrentham State School study to his attention a year ago, and he was rightfully horrified. However, others in the scientific community have been aware of these studies—but perhaps not similarly horrified—judging from citations in the literature. The Wrentham State School study has been cited 60 times to date, most recently in 2018; the Fernald State School study has been cited 50 times to date, most recently in 2020.

Is it ethical to cite papers in which human rights abuses are clearly documented? This question should be debated by the scientific community. Moreover, how should a journal respond to ethically distressing content when it is discovered?

Angewandte Chemie exemplified one approach: complete and decisive withdrawal of the offending content. However, this approach might make it easier for future generations to forget that abuses ever occurred. An alternative approach is that exemplified by Science—the Wrentham State School paper now prominently displays a link to the Thorp editorial. Anyone who consults this paper in the future will have an opportunity to learn of the utter inhumanity documented in its pages.

David W. Christianson.
Credit: Courtesy of David W. Christianson
David W. Christianson

I propose that scientific journals establish standard procedures for evaluating and addressing ethically distressing content, regardless of whether it is discovered days or decades after publication. What calls for retraction, and what calls for editorial annotation? Journals, editorial boards, and publishers must grapple with these difficult questions. While Science contemplates its own path forward, the editorial annotation of a paper documenting human rights abuses seems like a good start. Although this approach preserves ethically distressing journal content for all to read, it also ensures that future generations will see how we learned from the past as we aimed to do better.

David W. Christianson is the Roy and Diana Vagelos Professor in Chemistry and Chemical Biology and chair of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

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