National / Science & Health

Riken to ask Obokata for ¥600,000 in publishing fees for debunked paper

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

Riken said Friday that it would ask disgraced former researcher Haruko Obokata for about ¥600,000 in compensation for fees associated with publishing the results of her now-discredited research into so-called STAP cells.

Hiroshi Tsuboi, a member of Riken’s board of directors, said the money was equivalent to the fee Riken paid for the papers to be published in the prestigious British science journal Nature in January 2014.

In a Friday news conference, the institute made it clear that after consultation with three lawyers, they had decided not to file a criminal complaint against Obokata. Riken had made the decision Wednesday.

Obokata is believed to have stolen samples of embryonic stem cells that were mixed into what she called “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” cells from another researcher’s lab. Riken, however, says there is not enough evidence to support a lawsuit.

“I think Obokata has hurt Riken’s reputation, but it’s difficult for an institution to file a criminal complaint without being able to prove the correlation between a researcher’s misconduct and the institution losing its trust from society,” Tsuboi said.

Neither Obokata, who has already resigned from Riken, nor Riken President Ryoji Noyori, were at the conference.

A third-party panel on Riken reforms stated in a report to science minister Hakubun Shimomura that Riken is on the right path to restoring its image in the wake of the scandal.

However, the state-backed institution still has many tasks ahead and must keep moving forward with an action plan drafted by a research panel set up after the incident, the committee said.

“The most important action plan for Riken to enforce is to strengthen the check functions upon releasing the results of research,” said Osaka University Vice President Masao Ikeda, the committee’s deputy chairman.

“There are so many different researchers from different backgrounds, researching different fields, so in such an environment, there is a need to make check functions work effectively.”

Tamotsu Nomakuchi, chairman of the third-party panel on Riken reforms, said that he and Ikeda visited Riken’s research centers in both Saitama and Kobe, and talked with the person in charge of research ethics. The pair said they felt Riken as a whole is now trying to win back society’s trust by doing its best to carry out each action plan.

“What happened at the Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe has become a very big incident, and it seems like Riken was not functioning as an institution, but this is not true. Its mechanism is not bad, but we would have avoided this kind of incident if the checking mechanism had functioned effectively,” Nomakuchi said.

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