A confronting new study has revealed over 400 published research papers may be in violation of international ethical standards regarding the use of donor organs sourced from executed prisoners. The study calls for a mass retraction of hundreds of research papers involving transplanted hearts, livers or lungs in mainland China.

The use of donor organs extracted from executed prisoners in China has long been a major ethical problem for the international research community. After the country officially acknowledged the practice in 2006, following years of denials, the government indicated it would move towards volunteer organ donation. However, as recently as 2017 it was claimed the controversial practice of prisoner organ harvesting was still ongoing.

General international standards on research ethics say studies must not be published if they utilize biological material from executed prisoners, or organs that were acquired without informed consent. While these international standards are explicit, they also lack any particular regulatory force outside of individual publisher and peer-reviewer oversight.

The new study examined 445 research papers published in credible peer-reviewed journals between 2000 and 2017. All the papers described research undertaken in mainland China involving transplanted hearts, livers or lungs. A stunning 92.5 percent of the papers reviewed were found to not reveal whether organs were sourced from executed prisoners, and 99 percent did not report whether organ donors provided consent.

"The transplant research community has failed to implement ethical standards banning publication of research using material from executed prisoners," the new study concludes. "As a result, a large body of unethical research now exists, raising issues of complicity and moral hazard to the extent that the transplant community uses and benefits from the results of this research."

The primary concern raised in this new review is that journal editors and peer-reviewers are not effectively investigating the sources of organs reported in the majority of Chinese transplantation research. It is suggested the onus is on the publishers and the international science community to police these standards by refusing to publish papers that may violate agreed ethical norms.

The issue of forced organ donations in China is not a trivial one. In December, an interim judgement was revealed from an independent people's tribunal established to investigate how widespread this practice actually is. Called The Independent Tribunal Into Forced Organ Harvesting from Prisoners of Conscience In China, the panel is specifically investigating the organized practice of organ harvesting from those in the country being held for political or religious reasons.

"…it is beyond doubt on the evidence presently received that forced harvesting of organs has happened on a substantial scale by state supported or approved organizations and individuals," the tribunal revealed in December.

Although the new study calls for a mass retraction of hundreds of suspect research papers, the authors do note their hopes are not high this will actually be followed up on. A recent attempt to secure a retraction for just one suspect paper resulted in a frustrating and prolonged process, with journals seemingly reluctant to swiftly pull published papers.

The new study was published in the journal BMJ Open.