Ancient-DNA Researchers Set Ethics Guidelines for Their Work

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The authors of the new paper intentionally chose to invite only active practitioners of ancient DNA research, according to Kendra Sirak, a paleogeneticist at Harvard Medical School and one of the authors. They also emphasize that these guidelines come from a particular group of scholars in the ancient DNA community.

“We realized that what’s lacking in this field is a statement from a group of practitioners from all over the world, so that’s what we wanted to contribute here,” said Dr. Sirak, who works in the lab of David Reich, one of the leading experts in ancient DNA.

The new paper is not the first published set of ethics guidelines on the issue. In 2018, a group of scientists based in North America published guidelines for ancient DNA research — the first recommendations approved by a professional organization, the American Society of Human Genetics.

But concerns arose during the virtual workshop that the guidelines of that paper could not be extended worldwide, the authors said. “Our lab is global, and we heard from a lot of our collaborators who said those guidelines are good steppingstones but not universally applicable,” said Jakob Sedig, a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Reich’s lab.

The task of creating globally applicable guidelines for ancient DNA research is daunting, as historical and cultural context and regulations vary widely across the world, the authors noted in the new paper. In the United States and Hawaii, where Indigenous peoples were historically displaced by white settlers, “it is critical to center Indigenous perspectives,” said Nathan Nakatsuka, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and an author on the paper. Elsewhere in the world, the authors contend that consulting with communities who live in the vicinity of a site or profess ties to it does not always make sense.

The fourth recommendation in the new paper, on making data available after publication to check the scientific findings, garnered much debate. The guidelines call making data fully open a “best practice,” but would require only that other researchers be allowed to confirm the accuracy of the original study.

Many authors made the case for fully open data, Dr. Sirak said; restricted data access could tilt the availability of such data to larger, well-funded labs, they argued. “But we saw instances where we could possibly justify limiting data if there were concerns,” Dr. Sirak said.