Blight of research misconduct

In late December, a third-party committee unveiled the results of its investigation into the STAP cell fiasco involving Haruko Obokata and other researchers at the government-backed Riken research institute. The University of Tokyo also made public the outcome of its examination of research misconduct by members of a laboratory headed by former professor Shigeaki Kato at its Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (ICMB). The two scandals symbolize the widespread existence of unethical conduct by researchers in this country. Those involved in research must do their best to prevent misconduct. For its part, the government, which spends some ¥4 trillion a year on science and technology projects, needs to create an environment conducive to the elimination of problematic behavior by researchers.

The high profile STAP cell scandal at Riken mainly evolved around Obokata, although it also highlighted organizational problems. In contrast, the scandal at IMCB involved Kato and 10 others at his lab who were involved in 33 problematic research papers. The IMCB scandal can be deemed even more serious given its size. It’s likely that Riken and IMCB cases, which happened in the field of basic biology, represent only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to research misconduct, which takes place in many fields of science.

Strong pressure on scientists to make notable achievements — and thereby secure research funds — is fueling the misconduct. The University of Tokyo said that Kato, who had an overbearing attitude, aggressively pushed researchers over an extended period of time at his ICMB lab.

The university determined that after suspicions were raised about papers written by members of his lab, Kato ordered them to alter their lab notebooks to prevent the retraction of the papers, and that some of his subordinates fabricated or manipulated images in research papers. The university pointed out that behind the research misconduct was a perception held by members of Kato’s lab that he was willing to accept the fabrication or manipulation of data. The leaders of research labs at other institutes and universities should ask themselves if they are behaving in a similar manner to Kato.

A Kyodo News report quoted Eisuke Enoki, a lecturer at Kinki University’s medical school, as saying that the number of papers retracted in the field of life sciences has been on a rapid increase worldwide since 2000. In the peak year, 2010, 250 such papers were reportedly withdrawn, compared with 20 to 30 a year in the 1990s. In addition to the pressure they feel to make notable achievements, researchers also endure unstable employment situations due to the great increase in the number of doctors of science, with most positions lasting only several years. As a result of government policy, more than 70,000 students are now engaged in doctoral studies, compared with only about 30,000 in 1991.

Last August, the education and science ministry adopted a guideline, which will be implemented in April, aimed at preventing and managing research misconduct. As it calls for cutting research funds to institutes and universities where research misconduct has occurred, institutions will need to beef up measures to prevent unethical research behavior.

The tendency of lab leaders to seek research outcomes that adhere to preconceived scenarios and pressure their subordinates to submit papers to well-known scientific journals can lead to data fabrication and manipulation. They need to rectify this environment so that Japan’s scientific research can progress in a healthy manner. At the same time, utmost care must be taken to ensure that the creative freedom of researchers is not suppressed in the effort to stamp out misconduct. .