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Waseda rapped on dissertation scrutiny

Kyodo

Education minister Hakubun Shimomura said Friday he will ask Waseda University, which accepted the 2011 dissertation of then-doctoral candidate Haruko Obokata, to improve its dissertation-screening process after the school’s investigation panel said the previous day the study was marred by several flaws, including copyright infringement.

The Waseda panel concluded Thursday, however, that embattled stem cell researcher Obokata should not be stripped of her doctorate because it was not obtained “through illicit means,” noting that inadequate screening was to blame.

But the final decision on what is to become of her degree appeared to be pending. Waseda University President Kaoru Kamata said he takes the problems pointed out by the panel seriously and will decide on what to do with Obokata’s doctorate with respect to the committee’s conclusion.

“I will decline from commenting further, as I understand the university will come to a final conclusion (soon),” Shimomura told a news conference.

Obokata, meanwhile, released a statement saying she is taking the panel’s criticism seriously and regretting her misdeeds.

The Waseda panel, which looked into the 30-year-old researcher’s dissertation after a scandal involving so-called STAP cells came to light earlier this year, found 26 problematic points, including copyright infringement, in her 2011 dissertation, which gave “little adequacy and credibility” to the paper. STAP stands for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.

Lawyer Hideaki Kobayashi, who heads the university’s fact-finding committee, said at a press conference that Obokata’s dissertation should not have led to conveyance of a doctorate, but that she did not commit any wrongdoing to obtain the degree.

The panel criticized one of Obokata’s doctoral advisers, as well as those who examined her dissertation, for failing to detect the problems, saying she “would not have received the degree without serious flaws and inadequacy in the dissertation screening.”

Twenty pages of her dissertation were found to be similar to descriptions on the U.S. National Institute of Health’s website.

The university launched the probe after papers on stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells, purportedly capable of developing into any type of tissue, came under scrutiny due to irregularities, including images resembling those used in her doctoral dissertation. Obokata was a lead author of the papers.

The researcher at the government-affiliated Riken institute and coauthors later retracted the papers, which were published in the prestigious journal Nature in late January.

Obokata maintains her claim that the STAP phenomenon exists, and is taking part in experiments at Riken to verify her findings.

In a related development, 42 percent of 966 Riken workers who responded to a survey on the scandal by an anonymous group of Riken researchers said the probe into the STAP papers’ irregularities should be the priority. Just 13 percent said the experiments to verify the research findings are the most urgent matter, according to a Riken source.

Thirty-five percent of respondents said both the investigation and the experiments should be pursued at the same time, the source said, citing the survey conducted earlier this month.

Many of the respondents said the experiments to verify the research findings became important due to strong public interest in the existence of STAP cells, according to the source.