A series of irregularities in scientific research have come to light recently. They include manipulation of raw data, alteration and fabrications of graphics in scientific papers, and the embezzlement of research money. Not only researchers but also the institutes where they work should realize that the research irregularities are undermining public trust in scientists and take these incidents seriously. Scientists and research institutes need to strengthen their ethical standards. Otherwise there is the danger of regulations from outside being imposed on them, which would stifle autonomy in scientific research.
The reported irregularities include data fabrication pointed out regarding papers written by a former associate professor at Toho University’s medical school and a false announcement by a former researcher at the Tokyo University Hospital that he had put induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to clinical application — both in 2012.
This year, suspected data manipulation in clinical research on Novartis Pharma K.K.’s high blood pressure drug Diovan made headlines nationwide. Of the five universities that conducted the research, teams at Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine and Jikei University School of Medicine retracted their papers. Researchers under a former professor at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences at the University of Tokyo were found to have reused or altered graphics in more than 40 papers. A professor at the same university’s Policy Alternatives Research Center was indicted on embezzlement charges.
Pressure on researchers is one factor behind the frequent occurrence of irregularities in scientific research. To receive research money, researchers need to publish as many papers as possible to get widespread attention. An increasing number of researchers employed on short-term contracts face pressure to make remarkable achievement as quickly as possible. Such factors can lead them to use unethical research methods.
Although the harsh competition they face may tempt scientific researchers to gain an edge through unethical practices, they should strictly follow the Science Council of Japan’s Code of Conduct for Scientists. The document in part calls on scientists to establish ethical norms to strictly control their own conduct while fulfilling their accountability to society and consciously taking part in building and maintaining sound relationships between science and society, as well as policy and policy makers. The council is considering requiring researchers to study the code of conduct as a precondition for applying for public financial support. For its part, the education and science ministry has decided to require that researchers who plan to receive ministry funding first complete a course on scientific ethics.
While we hope that the two organizations’ approaches will bear fruit, the government should also consider ways of improving the employment conditions of researchers so they do not feel pressured by harsh competition to use unethical methods in their research in the hopes of gaining an edge on the competition.
For their part, researchers must keep in mind that public-sector funds are taxpayer funds so when they conduct themselves in an unethical manner they are not only betraying their own ethical standards but also cheating the general public.