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Unstable work seen as a factor as Kyoto University admits iPS researcher falsified data in paper

by Shusuke Murai

Staff Writer

Research misconduct at a leading iPS cell research institute, headed by Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka, has once again shaken confidence in the quality of Japan’s science.

But experts contacted by The Japan Times on Tuesday said that unstable employment conditions faced by scientists are behind the seemingly endless string of research-related scandals in the nation.

Kyoto University announced Monday that Kohei Yamamizu, 36 — a specially appointed assistant professor at its Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) who was involved in research to generate a brain structure in vitro using iPS cells — had falsified 11 of 12 figures used in his paper that was published last year in the U.S. academic journal Stem Cell Reports.

Shinya Midori, a Tokyo-based science writer and author of a book about Yamanaka’s research, said that even at a venerable research institute like CiRA, scientists are under enormous pressure to show results before their contract terms end, or risk seeing their careers come to a halt.

“I think CiRA is doing relatively well when it comes to winning research funds. Yet, it is difficult to cover costs (to promote more researchers in permanent positions) as the scale of research centers have become bigger,” he said.

According to Kyoto University, 90 percent of roughly 300 scientists, research assistants, and administrative staff employed at CiRA as of March 2017 were on fixed-term contracts.

Another expert, Iekuni Ichikawa, executive director at the Association for the Promotion of Research Integrity, also said that excessive pressures among researchers to compete for permanent positions reflect a “poor balance” between fixed-term researchers and those in permanent roles.

Yamamizu reportedly admitted the fabrications and falsifications, claiming they were “to make the paper look better.” His term at CiRA was set to end in March 2018.

“As CiRA Director, I feel a strong responsibility for not having been able to prevent research misconduct at our institute and sincerely apologize to all who support us and our research activities,” Yamanaka said in a statement released Monday, adding that the organization will decide how to reprimand Yamamizu and other researchers, including Yamanaka. He said the research misconduct found this time has no direct influence on any ongoing or planned clinical research involving iPS cells.

The scandal involving the elite life science research body follows misconduct found at the University of Tokyo last year. The nation’s top university announced that fabrications and falsifications of data and images were detected in five papers supervised and coauthored by two researchers at its Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.

Midori said Yamanaka’s research center has been especially careful about avoiding academic dishonesty after misconduct over the research of Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency (STAP) cells conducted by Haruko Obokata came to light in 2014.

Still, preventing misconduct by an individual researcher was difficult, especially after the scale of the research institute grew, he said.

“I think the pressure is felt by all researchers. But it’s not right to fabricate research results so as to favor themselves,” he said.

On the other hand, stepping up surveillance on dishonest practices may not always be a good thing for the future of academia as a whole, because good research often comes from academic freedom, Midori said.

“Once a strict checking system is set, researchers who are not engaged in misconduct also need to go through the same process. It’s always difficult to find a fair way to check research integrity while giving enough freedom to researchers,” he said.

Ichikawa also said researchers need to realize that, given the widespread use of the internet, even the slightest tampering of research data can be easily caught by people online.

“I think researchers need to realize that their work is always watched by outsiders from the moment they publish,” he said.