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‘STAPgate’ shows Japan must get back to basics in science

Misconduct, and covering it up, common in nation's labs: experts

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

On Jan. 30, as NHK kicked off its evening news program with upbeat music, footage aired of a young woman with immaculately coiffed brown hair wearing pearl earrings and her trademark “kappogi,” a Japanese-style white apron.

“A ‘rikejo’ (young female scientist) has stunned the world,” the news anchor announced cheerfully as he introduced Haruko Obokata, a 30-year-old researcher at the state-backed Riken institute’s Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe.

The footage showed her peering into a microscope in a lab with pink walls and drawings of Moomin cartoon characters on the doors.

“She has succeeded in creating pluripotent cells, which have the potential to change into different body tissues in an amazingly easy manner,” he continued. “Behind the success was her resilience and determination to defy hardships, as well as support from veteran researchers.”

The upbeat mood generated by the public broadcaster that night permeated the media in the days that followed. Obokata’s team of Japanese and U.S. researchers announced on Jan. 28 that they had discovered a new type of all-purpose cell called STAP, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.

Now, less than three months later, the celebratory mood has vanished amid discrepancies in the papers, with skepticism growing daily over the “discovery” despite her emphatic claims at an April 9 news conference that STAP cells truly exist.

At the same time, much of the “support” from the veteran scientists who co-authored the study has dwindled.

Some turned their backs on her, saying she should withdraw the two STAP-related papers published in the British journal Nature, an idea she has flatly rejected.

Riken, in its April 1 report on the suspicions surrounding her research, went as far as to say that Obokata “solely lacks not only a sense of research ethics, but also integrity and humility as a scientific researcher.”

What went wrong?

Experts say that “STAPgate,” as the controversy has been dubbed, illustrates the numerous cultural and ethical problems plaguing scientific research in Japan.

At the same time, the rise of blogs by research monitors, such as PubPeer in the United States and a whistle-blower blog run by the anonymous “11jigen” in Japan, means that many instances of misconduct — including plagiarism, fabrication and falsification of data — are immediately spotted, shared and investigated on the Internet these days. These bloggers have helped shed light on potential flaws in the STAP research not addressed by Riken’s investigation, casting doubt not only on Obokata, but also on the nation’s top research institute.

In fact, it was an anonymous post on PubPeer on Feb. 4, just a week after the celebratory press conference hosted by Riken in Kobe on Jan. 28, that triggered a litany of allegations against the Nature papers.

The poster said that, in an image used in one of Obokata’s two STAP papers in Nature, a part showing a DNA analysis of the purported pluripotent cells seemed to have been “spliced in” from a portion of another image. When magnified, the part where another image was inserted had unnatural vertical lines that hinted at the possibility the image had been manipulated.

The investigative committee convened Feb. 14 by Riken concluded on April 1 that this splicing amounted to falsification. Obokata has since acknowledged manipulating the image but denied “malicious intent” and said it had no bearing on the overall success of her experiments.

Meanwhile, the whistleblowing blogger 11jigen and others had pointed out by mid-March that another image in the papers that was being used to establish the existence of pluripotency — the ability to grow into various parts of living organisms — in the STAP cells was nearly identical to an image in her 2011 doctoral thesis at Waseda University. The experiments in her thesis, however, were carried out under conditions different from the Riken-sponsored study.

The Riken committee, in its April 1 report, judged this as an act of fabrication. Obokata denied this and described it as an act of carelessness.

While Riken and Obokata are sharply at odds, Robert Geller, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo who has closely followed the issue and has written a book that probes the government’s wasteful spending on earthquake prediction, said that these and other errors, when added up, discredit the STAP research from its very foundations.

Other problems ignored by the committee, Geller said, are the fact that the authors of the STAP papers did not declare competing financial interests despite applying for a patent for their purported discovery in April 2013.

Nature makes it clear that authors must declare any related financial interests in their work, including employment, personal interest, patent applications and stocks, “in the interests of transparency and to help readers to form their own judgments of potential bias,” according to the journal’s website.

Also, the paper copied, without attribution, wording from a 2005 paper by someone else in a section describing an experimental technique.

This particular problem was one of the six points that Riken’s report pointed out. But the committee concluded that it was a simple error by Obokata and did not constitute misconduct.

In Geller’s view, however, the committee took this too lightly, obscuring the important fact that the copied text listed pieces of equipment from the 1990s that are probably no longer available.

“This goes beyond just copying and pasting. I have no idea why Riken didn’t follow this up,” Geller said.

“So not to mention this patent (application) in the paper, this in itself is not grounds for finding them guilty of fraud. But if you have so many things like this, at some point you have to say (they engaged in) inappropriate conduct.”

A Riken spokesman told The Japan Times that the authors consulted with Nature’s editors, upon filing a patent application in the U.S. in April 2013, whether they should declare the application in their paper by updating the article, the first version of which had been submitted to the journal in March 2013. But the authors were told by Nature such a revision “was not necessary,” according to the Riken official.

Geller also criticized Riken for restricting its investigation of the two papers to only six allegations.

“Their interests in resolving the STAP cell mess would best be served by throwing Obokata under the bus and nominally admonishing the other Riken-affiliated co-authors, thereby providing pseudo-closure,” Geller wrote in a guest post on a blog run by Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at the School of Medicine at University of California, Davis. “They could then just go on with business as usual, telling the public ‘nothing to see here; move along.’ ”

Thomas Knopfel, chair of optogenetics and circuit neurosciences at Imperial College in London, who was principal investigator, the highest-ranking scientist position, at Riken’s Brain Science Institute from 1998 through 2013, posted a comment on the online edition of the journal Science last month in which he said Riken “has a very soft interpretation of ‘research misconduct.’ ”

“I personally had been severely harassed (and finally found unsuitable to continue my work at Riken) because I was not willing to tolerate events that in my word constitute ‘research misconduct.’ ” he wrote.

Knopfel, when contacted by The Japan Times, said that several years ago, he learned of a case of plagiarism involving a Riken scientist under his supervision. When he tried to raise the issue through a compliance section at the institute, “they gave me a hard time,” he said.

“I got a response asking, ‘What did you do against it?’ ” he said. “(They acted as if) it was my responsibility to fix the problem and not bring it up.”

Knopfel, who said corporate Japan has a general tendency to cover up scandals, as seen in the ways Tokyo Electric Power Co. has handled the fiasco at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station, noted that creating tougher rules on research ethics alone will not work.

“The problem is, in Japan, what is written on paper and what is reality are sometimes divergent,” he said. “So there should be focus on implementation than writing down the rules. Also, what is needed is a culture of speaking about problems.”

Knopfel is thus critical of the way Riken has handled the STAP case so far. “They are doing something superficial to repair the damage and not going to the deep core of the issue,” he said. That’s what motivated me to comment (in Science), because they can solve it only by going deeper and through constructive internal criticism.”

What’s the lesson to be learned from the STAP fiasco?

Geller said that, ultimately, people need to realize that science is about finding out how the world works, not about making money.

“We need to separate science and technology,” he said. “Science will eventually mean, if it’s successful, being applied in technology. But when we do science we are just trying to understand nature; we are not trying to do something useful in life to make money.

“We have to tell the truth, and the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

  • phu

    The misconduct itself — and I consider “carelessness” not an excuse but rather a very serious type of misconduct in this case as well — is bad to the point that, yes, Obokata should at very least be reprimanded (and accept her punishment). At very, very least.

    Her ongoing excuses and refusal to face up to what clearly amounts to repeated professional dishonesty, though, almost certainly show her for what she really is: Not just a researcher who made a few mistakes, but a careless, self-centered liar who has damaged both her reputation and the reputation of her employer.

    Worse still, she’s seriously damaged the image of her own research: If, despite all her misconduct, her theories are sound and can be proven by competent and conscientious scientists, she’s certainly guilty of harming the advancement of extremely important science.

    Cultural problems like those claimed by Mr. Knoepfel can’t be addressed if issues like this continue to be swept under the rug. If scientists don’t put science first, we can hardly hope for any real, trustworthy advancement in any field.

  • GBR48

    Obokata has learned her trade within the Japanese scientific community and the cultural issues that are outlined in the article will have influenced her throughout her professional career. Without a sea-change in the academic culture, generations of Japanese scientists will follow the methodologies within which they find themselves. This culture cannot be changed from below. It has to be enforced across the board from the top as a matter of policy.

    To severely castigate those who are behaving as they have been taught to, and to let their teachers off the hook is wrong. Additionally, Obokata cannot be blamed for the way the media (including the ‘Japan Times’) responded to her. That is a common, global media failing. When the cameras turn up, you do your hair, smile sweetly and make the most of it. It’s a natural response to media attention, particularly in a community unused to it.

    There has been a distasteful ‘witch hunt’ aspect to the institutional, media and public response to this incident, centred on the figure of one young, female scientist in a male-dominated field and a male-dominated nation.

    Scientists are human and they can make mistakes. If the media choose to treat Obokata like an idol and then like a witch, the fault lies with the media.

    Obokata has admitted her failings but has dug her heels in over the core science (as most scientists would) and this needs to be checked out as a matter of urgency and independently. It shouldn’t take a year to do that. That smacks of a cover up through the simple mechanism of waiting for the issue to pass out of the gaze of the public.

    Deep-rooted cultural issues of this nature are a hangover from Japan’s persistent isolationism. The same issue affects “developing” countries in Africa when an almost pre-industrial society attains independence and wealth from natural resources. The resulting confluence of the traditional and the modern is rarely pretty. Japan is no third world country, but its Madagascar-like cultural development has resulted in a mixed bag of cultural mores.

    The positive consequences of this are amazing and the rest of the world could learn so much from them. An obvious example: How to live in mutual respect of each other in crowded cities under extraordinary pressures with limited natural resources and under constant threat of geophysical catastrophe. It has made the Japanese a robust and self-sufficient people with very low crime figures. That is something the rest of the world should admire and emulate.

    The flip-side is the sort of thing that you do see in developing nations, particularly where power or wealth accumulate. In politics, in corporate and institutional hierarchies and in organised crime.

    Japan’s past has led it to extremes: what Japan does well, it tends to do better than any other developed nation. But what it does badly, is comparable to developing countries as they struggle to shed traditional cultural practices that are no longer suited to the global village of the twenty-first century.

    The solution probably resides in reforms emanating from central government and institutional boards of governance, that cherish the best traditions but force a change in those age-set mentalities and cultural mechanisms that need to modernise to conform with international best practice. Unfortunately, the current government and many institutional boards do not appear to have got the balance right on what they are implementing policies upon, and seem to have little interest in intervening in areas where they do need to reform behaviour. Ultimately this failing will be to the general detriment of Japan and its people.

  • Earl Kinmonth

    ”Knopfel, who said corporate Japan has a general tendency to cover up scandals, as seen in the ways Tokyo Electric Power Co. has handled the fiasco at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power station, noted that creating tougher rules on research ethics alone will not work.” May I take it that Knopfel is unaware of the unfolding scandal involving General Motors?

  • Gabriel Pinzón

    I think that the tendency to pretend that science should become “productive” or useful in life to make money or better products comes from the corporate world and from a portion of the public (specially free-market advocates), who tend to despise non-productive occupations as useless.

  • C321

    Might be best to hold judgement on this. Seems the committee that “investigated” it may have jumped the gun.