Riken serves Obokata, others with penalties; charges could follow

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

The government-backed research institution at the center of a scandal over faked work is putting most of the blame on scientist Haruko Obokata and to a lesser extent three of her former colleagues.

Obokata, 31, who has already resigned from Riken, merits disciplinary discharge for fraud, the severest punishment possible for staff researchers, Kiyofumi Tsutsumi, director of the institution’s human resources division, said Tuesday.

Riken is also considering seeking criminal charges against her and compensation for the misuse of research funds, a second official said.

Also named Tuesday was Masatoshi Takeichi, a former director of Riken’s Center for Developmental Biology, who was given a reprimand but is separately returning three months of his salary.

Hitoshi Niwa, a co-author of the contested research papers, was given a written disciplinary warning.

Fellow co-author Teruhiko Wakayama, a researcher who has resigned from Riken, was declared deserving of suspension for up to a year.

Riken also decided on disciplinary action for Yoshiki Sasai, a former deputy director of the center who committed suicide last August, but it won’t announce the measures because he is dead, Tsutsumi said.

Although announcing disciplinary actions against scientists who are no longer with the institute is by many measures a hollow gesture, it decided to do so “to clarify the significance of their responsibility in research dishonesty, as well as in consideration of the social impact of the case,” Tsutsumi said.

Obokata is not off the hook. Satoru Kagaya, director of Riken’s public relations office, said discussion is underway on whether to seek criminal charges against her, although he gave no details.

Obokata resigned in a letter dated Dec. 21, which Riken accepted.

Third-party investigators commissioned to look into the scandal said Dec. 26 that the pluripotent cells Obokata said she had developed were in fact embryonic stem cells mixed in either unintentionally or on purpose. Riken said Tuesday it has no plan to ascertain which scenario is true.

Earlier, the British science journal Nature retracted a paper published in January 2014.

That decision was finalized because Obokata did not appeal it, Riken said last month.

A magazine has quoted former senior Riken researcher Toshihisa Ishikawa as saying he believes Obokata stole samples of embryonic stem cells from another researcher’s lab. This, he said, warrants criminal charges — in part to regain international confidence in Japan’s science establishment.

But Obokata’s lawyer, Hideo Miki, in a statement Jan. 26, said the allegation of theft is “poorly put together” and “significantly contradicts the facts.”

  • Yosemite_Steve

    Expected fallout from this: it will be much harder for junior researchers anywhere in Japan to get any results published because TPTB are always extremely risk adverse and will use this incident to further ‘err on the side of caution’ such as postpone publication of legitimate good research for years out of paranoia over this incident. Offhand, that would be the reaction I’d expect rather than actually fully understanding what went wrong here and simply making sure the weaknesses which allowed this incident are not replicated elsewhere.

    It’s very disturbing to me that anybody could talk about prosecuting Obokata at this juncture – it seems like she is now being scapegoated in a big way. The article states that “in fact embryonic stem cells mixed in either unintentionally or on purpose. Riken said Tuesday it has no plan to ascertain which scenario is true.” If it is in fact the official Riken position that they don’t have all the facts and will not investigate further to try to deterrmine exactly what happned and why then there can never be sufficient evidence and grounds for any prosecution for deliberate misconduct, so talking about that is in fact just BS and slander, ‘piling on’ the blame on the weakest link in the institution.

    Obokata is obviously at least monumentally incompetent, but other than that may or may not be innocent of deliberate misconduct. You’d have to be pretty stupid to announce ‘world shaking’ results thinking you would get away with flawed research. In any case by far the heavier responsibility should lie with the senior staff who failed in training or oversight or both. Without having any experience in this or similar research facility in Japan it’s hard to judge how representative this is and if so of what specific systemic weaknesses in Japanese research or whether on the other hand this incident was an unfortunate exception.

    • Shinsakan

      I think it would be pretty difficult to separately swap in three entirely different cell lines “by accident” or through “incompetence” or for someone else to do it (remember that she was the one doing the cell biology experiments). Also, the differentiation figures in the Nature paper were lifted from her dissertation from data completely unrelated to STAP; it also seems impossible for that to be accidental and done by someone else. It is pretty hard to see this as anything other than deliberate. Trying to draw the blame away from her minimizes the impact of the fraud that she committed. She bears the greatest responsibility for what happened because she was a PI, not a trainee.

      RIKEN’s failure is in hiring her to be a PI in the first place, when she obviously had no track record. However, after that, they did what they were supposed to do and trusted her to do her job. She wasn’t a postdoc anymore; she was supposed to be an independent researcher.

      As for thinking you could get away with flawed research, it happens all the time in lower-impact journals because most of the time, no one reads those papers and they don’t attract much scrutiny. Obokata was apparently unfamiliar enough with research that she may have also thought the same “rules” would apply for Nature. Alternatively, she may have felt that she had no choice because her getting an independent PI position at RIKEN was based on her “discovery;” by the time she realized it wasn’t real, it may have been too late to back out.

      • Shinsakan

        I do think it is wrong of RIKEN to contemplate making her pay for the “validation” experiments. Everyone working in the field was already convinced at that point that STAP cells do no exist. No one else who commits fraud is given that kind of second chance to “make right” fabricated findings. The resulting waste of money is on RIKEN, not Obokata.

      • Yosemite_Steve

        Thanks, I’m neither a biologist nor researcher, I worked in development where this sort of thing could never happen. You are helping me a lot as I try to see if I can understand this better. OK, she’s a fully PI, but there were a bunch of other scientists who signed off on the article. Especially given that this was considered a rather remarkable result, isn’t it a big QA failure that nobody else had noticed her obvious copying, and falsified results? Are there no systemic checks and balances besides the presumably proven honesty of the researcher?

        Also, doesn’t this represent a big failure on whoever trained her? Or is it accepted that all her training could have been fine and she was just the exception in being a very dishonest individual? I guess that as you suggested, we can guess that she may have e.g. first faked the results to get the position, then found herself forced to publish and hope nobody notices, once she had got accepted as a PI based on the falsified results. So even if she had feared discovery, once she had made the claim she could never take it back.

        The article makes it sound less sure about what happened, but maybe that is just a matter of nobody wanting to talk about it to the media, where everybody just wants it to go away as quietly as possible, though there may be some pressures to prosecute Obokata to make extra sure nobody else gets tempted to pull this kind of trick.

      • Shinsakan

        It’s not that easy; the reason why there are so many names on papers is that research is a collaborative effort and everyone is trusted to do their part; typically the roles of all those names don’t overlap much. At least at the postodoctoral level and independent researcher level, nobody sits over your shoulder as you do experiments or make figures to prepare a manuscript; there would simply not be enough time or resources because everyone else has their own research to work on. This is particular true in Japan, where the first author on the publication has typically done nearly all of the experiments for the paper and put together the figures. Also, the copying and falsified results weren’t obvious at the time- it was hindsight. For example, the fabrications in the paper were only noticed when someone somehow got their hands on her dissertation, and the swapping of the cells was only revealed after subsequent genetic analyses of the cells. Of course, what she was claiming was a bit suspect in the first place, but she (and her boss in Boston who came up with the STAP idea) convinced Sasai and Wakayama, who are/were world-class stem cell researchers, and their names/reputations lent credibility to it and may have played a role in why it was published in Nature. Anyway, that is why for researchers, reputation is critical, perhaps more critical than in other fields, because so much of what you have to go on depends on someone’s word. Regarding QA, though, the QA most typically comes after publication. That is why in research, nobody really believes anything when it has first been published- not until it has been independently replicated by others. Cases of outright fraud such as this are rare, but fantastic findings that cannot be replicated are not. In this case, there was a failing of the media in jumping to conclusions about those two initial papers without waiting to see if anyone else could replicate the findings. That is why Obokata’s papers did not make as big of stir in the research community as it did among the public. The fact was that nobody else in the world, even in the top stem cell labs (Obokata was not even originally trained as a stem cell biologist; she came up in tissue engineering labs, which is why Wakayama and Sasai were brought into the project) were able to replicate the findings. Thus, the research community came to the conclusion that it was all BS within a couple of months after the papers were published. Normally, such papers would just fade away into obscurity. However, in this case, the media had made such a big deal out of it (and then of course there was the fraud) that any kind of normal fading away was impossible.

        I do think that it represents a big failure of who trained her and the system in which she was trained, where she was not taught about ethics or how to properly perform research, but for that we have to go back to before RIKEN.

        As for what happened, what I want to believe most is that in the initial cell experiments in Boston, she saw something and mistook it/misinterpreted it for something else because of her lack of experience and lack of knowledge, thus seeing STAP cells where in fact there were none. This could have happened. Then, those misinterpreted findings could have started catapulting her career and resulted with the collaboration with RIKEN and subsequent offer of a position. By then, the more in-depth experiments to characterize the cells were being performed, and at that point it would be impossible not realize that the original misperception was a mistake. That is could have been the point where the fraud started- where a misinterpretation/mistake was turned into a lie to protect the career that had been built on the misperception. I don’t want to believe that she lied from the beginning, although of course that is possible, too.

        RIKEN are of course careful about the extent to which they point fingers because she lawyered up so quickly and they are probably afraid of litigation. The media seems to be simply just misinformed; throughout this whole debacle, they seem to have been content to take whatever is fed them and make things up without doing much actual investigative reporting of their own. More than serving as a deterrent, though, I would think that the pressure to prosecute Obokata and her “termination with prejudice” even after she has “quit” serve as an attempt to restore faith in RIKEN by showing that they are taking this seriously.

      • Yosemite_Steve

        Wow, thanks – you provided a ton of insight to allow me to understand how this could have and probably did happened. With the extra background info you kindly explained, I see much better how this fiasco could have unfolded. The media stupidly got so far out of control that Obokata became the shining national female star of J. research one minute then the absolute national goat the next. Talk about instant Karma! From what you say there is almost no way she was not a fully conscious agent and very blameworthy, but at the same time I can’t avoid also feeling sorry for her.

        It looks like she certainly did something very, very stupid and she ended up in the perfect nightmare roller-coaster: up into incredible fame then quickly down into hell! Her fame as the unique, hugely visible “woman scientist of the year” ends up being a very heavy rock tied around her neck. Very ironic, and sad even if caused by some very bad personal weakness and terrible judgement.

    • Guest

      However, I do think it is wrong of RIKEN to think about making her pay for the “validation” experiments. Everyone working in the field was already convinced at that point that STAP cells do no exist. No one else who commits fraud is given that kind of second chance to “make right” fabricated findings. The resulting waste of money is on RIKEN, not Obokata.