Academic Scandal Shakes Japan

08-Jul-2014 Intellasia | NY Times | 6:00 AM Print This Post

In a professional world dominated by middle-aged men, Haruko Obokata stood out. Obokata, 31, led a research unit for cellular programming at the Riken centre for Developmental Biology. In January she stunned Japan’s academic establishment when the British journal Nature published two papers, of which she was the lead author, that suggested a leap forward in regenerative medicine.

Japan’s news media hailed Obokata, a former researcher at Harvard Medical School, as an academic star, but the adulation was short-lived. In February, Riken, a network of research institutions receiving roughly $1 billion a year from the government, set up an investigative panel after being notified of problems in the Nature papers. Three months later the panel publicly shamed Obokata, accusing her of fabricating data, doctoring images, and plagiarism.

Obokata’s actions “lead us to the conclusion that she sorely lacks, not only a sense of research ethics, but also integrity and humility as a scientific researcher,” a damning report by the panel concluded. The release of the report sent Obokata, who admits mistakes but not ill intent, to the hospital in shock for a week. Riken has dismissed all her appeals, clearing the way for disciplinary action, which she has pledged to fight. On June 4 the embattled researcher agreed to retract both Nature papers – under duress, according to her lawyer. On July 2, Nature released a statement from her and the other authors officially retracting the papers.

The shockwaves from Obokata’s rise and vertiginous fall continue to reverberate. Japan’s top universities are rushing to install anti-plagiarism software and are combing through old doctoral theses amid allegations that they are honeycombed with similar problems.

The affair has sucked in some of Japan’s most revered professors, including two Nobel laureates: Riken’s president, Ryoji Noyori, and Shinya Yamanaka, a professor at Kyoto University. Yamanaka, who is credited with the creation of induced pluripotent stem cells, in April denied claims that he too had manipulated images in a 2000 research paper on embryonic mouse stem cells, but he was forced to admit that, like Obokata, he could not find lab notes to support his denial.

The scandal has prompted questions about the quality of science in a country that still punches below its international weight in cutting-edge research. Critics say Japan’s best universities have churned out hundreds of poor-quality Ph.D.s. Young researchers are not taught how to keep detailed lab notes, properly cite data, or question assumptions, said Sukeyasu Yamamoto, a former physicist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and now an adviser to Riken. “The problems we see in this episode are all too common,” Yamamoto said.

Ironically, Riken was known as a positive discriminator in a country where just one in seven university researchers is a woman – the lowest proportion in the developed world. The organisation was striving to push young women into positions of responsibility, say other professors there. “The flip side is that they overreacted and maybe went a little too fast,” said Kathleen S. Rockland, a neurobiologist who once worked at Riken’s Brain Science Institute. “That’s a pity because they were doing a very good job.”

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Many professors, however, accuse the institute of hanging Obokata out to dry since the problems in her papers were exposed. Riken was under intense pressure to justify its budget with high-profile results. Japan’s news media have focused on the role of Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Riken centre and Obokata’s supervisor, who initially promoted her, then insisted he had no knowledge of the details of her research after the problems were exposed.

Critics have noted that even the head of the inquiry into Obokata’s alleged misconduct, Shunsuke Ishii, was forced to admit in April that he had posted “problematic” images in a 2007 paper published in the journal Oncogene. Ishii, a molecular geneticist, subsequently resigned from the investigative committee.

Acknowledging flaws in the entire supervising process would prompt firings and possible government budget cuts, which is why Riken has circled the wagons and heaped blame on Obokata, said Thomas Knopfel, a founder of Riken’s Brain Science Institute and now a leading neuroscientist at Imperial College London. “It appears to me that Riken is more concerned about damage control and blame shifting” than about clarification, he said.

Knopfel in part blamed the Obokata affair on a push by Riken to publish in high-impact journals rather than to focus on generating good science. “My observation was that Riken is driven by individual egos and interests beyond the healthy competition required for attaining a high scientific and ethical standard,” he commented.

For its part, Riken has said that it plans a thorough review of its procedures and personnel.

“Those who were not found to have been involved in research misconduct still bear a heavy responsibility for their administrative negligence, which allowed the research misconduct to occur,” it said in a statement. “These individuals will also be subjected to disciplinary measures.”

The news media have not escaped blame either. Desperate for a scientific success story, journalists hyped Obokata as a sort of academic idol similar to Japan’s army of twee, ephemeral female celebrities. Reporters who visited her laboratory noted that the walls had been painted pink and decorated with cartoon characters. Television images focused on her false eyelashes and a striking if impractical wide-sleeved apron. “They built her up, then knocked her down,” said Shohei Yonemoto, a professor at the Research centre for Advanced Science and Technology in the University of Tokyo.

Obokata declined to comment for this article. Naoki Namba, a spokesman for Riken, said she was still under contract but a committee set up to decide disciplinary measures would probably recommend dismissal. Sasai, her supervisor, also declined to comment. But in an April news conference, he appeared to shift some of the responsibility to Charles A. Vacanti, a Harvard University professor who supervised Obokata’s research and was a co-author of the Nature papers.

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Dr Vacanti has stood by the scientific content of the papers, which aimed to show that pluripotent stem cells could be created by the application of external stresses, such as a bacterial toxin or a weak acid bath. He has argued against withdrawing the papers and has said that, once the dust from the scandal has settled, the science underlying the phenomenon described as “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” will “speak for itself.” (Such cells can theoretically be cultivated into any kind of living tissue, meaning they might eventually be used to create new human organs.)

Neither Harvard nor its affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Dr Vacanti works, would comment on suggestions that they are struggling to replicate Obokata’s work. But the debate on its merits rages on. Yamamoto and Knopfel are among those who think the researcher is guilty of sloppiness but not intentional fabrication. But PubPeer, an online postpublication peer reviewer that raised important questions about the Nature papers – and so probably triggered the Riken investigation – supports retraction. “The papers have problems that would have precluded publication had they been identified in advance,” PubPeer’s anonymous peer reviewer said.

In rejecting her appeals recently, Noyori, Riken’s president, asked Obokata to withdraw one of the two papers containing “instances of research misconduct.” Obokata said through her lawyer that she “cannot accept” the Riken findings and has hinted at potentially long-drawn-out legal action.

Yamamoto called her treatment and isolation appalling. “They have put her on the roof,” he said, “and taken away the ladder.”


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