Riken’s actions are inadequate

The government-funded Riken institute on May 8 turned down an appeal by researcher Haruko Obokata to reinvestigate her controversial papers on so-called STAP cells. Riken also formally recommended that one of the two papers that Obokata wrote with a team of Japanese and U.S. scientists, which were published in January in the British scientific journal Nature, be withdrawn. But Riken’s 21-page final report on the controversy is inadequate because it fails to delve into the question of why and how the research misconduct occurred. Without doing this it will be difficult for the institute to establish a system to prevent the recurrence of similar problems.

In the two papers, the 14-member research team headed by Obokata reported that some lymph corpuscles taken from 7-day-old mice and soaked in mildly acidic liquid for about 30 minutes developed into nerve and muscle tissues. They named this new way of reprogramming adult cells into pluripotent cells “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” or STAP. The papers attracted worldwide attention, but later raised many questions.

On April 1, Riken’s investigative’ committee announced that Obokata committed two cases of research misconduct: fabrication and manipulation of data. Regarding images intended to show that STAP cells have the ability to change into various cells, the panel said that Obokata had used images “that very closely resembled images in her doctoral thesis” for Waseda University, which were created under different research conditions, and concluded there was “an act of research misconduct involving fabrication.” Thus it rejected the authenticity of crucial evidence for the discovery of STAP cells.

The committee also said that an image from a test designed to determine the origin of cells by focusing on the patterns of DNA taken from cells and placed in an electric field was “a composite … created from two separate images,” and as such constituted manipulation of data.

Obokata insisted that any mistakes in the papers were errors made without malicious intent and filed an appeal. Now that Riken has turned it down, she could take the case to court. She has also refused to withdraw the paper in question.

While Riken’s rules list fabrication and manipulation of data as examples of research misconduct, they also say that these acts do not constitute misconduct if they are done without any malicious intent. Obokata bases her argument on these rules. Riken’s final report says that “malicious intent” can be proved with the “intentionality” of her acts, even when there were no “strong intentions to inflict damage, such as through camouflage.” This is a convoluted explanation. Riken should admit that its vague rules have complicated the controversy over the STAP cell research.

Riken’s final report merely says it will consider a detailed examination of how Obokata conducted her research and how she created the data used in her papers. While Riken urges Obokata to withdraw one of the Nature papers, the institute has not decided to withdraw its application for patent based on the STAP cell research. It says that it will make a final decision depending on the progress of its current experiment to produce STAP cells. Riken’s attitude is contradictory.

Before doubts were raised about the papers on STAP cells, Riken organized a great deal of PR activities featuring Obokata, who scarcely had any previous scientific achievements. Riken has a duty to carry out a detailed examination of Obokata’s research process, including examination of all her material, and determine what led her to commit her errors. In doing so, Riken should not make light of its culture and organizational inadequacies and the responsibility of her coresearchers. It should not place the blame for the STAP cell research controversy on Obokata alone.

  • KenjiAd

    When the reward of cheating is great and the risk of getting caught is small, people cheat. Scientists are not different from those athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs.

    Aside from teaching ethics to scientists (and hope they get it), can a research institute create some sort of audit system that can catch research frauds or errors more frequently? Your article is based on the assumption that there can and should be such a system in place at Riken and other research institutes.

    I’m not sure about that.