Coping with research misconduct

A government guideline for universities and research institutes to cope with research misconduct goes into effect on April 1. It was developed by the education and science ministry in view of a series of misconduct cases, including the high-profile STAP cell scandal at Riken. But the guideline is inadequate in ensuring fairness and transparency in the process of investigating alleged misconduct. The ministry should not hesitate to revise it.

While the STAP cell fiasco made big headlines, the research misconduct that took place at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences is more serious. Data fabrication and manipulation were detected in 33 research papers involving 11 people, including a former professor who headed the institute.

To prevent a recurrence, the guideline lays down basic ideas on how to prevent unethical behavior by researchers and how to cope with research irregularities once they have happened. It calls on universities and research institutes to set up their own systems to deal with these issues.

It urges organizations that distribute research funds to have researchers found to have committed misconduct return part or all of the funds used in their research, and to stop offering funds to cover the associated costs of institutes that fail to improve their systems to prevent misconduct.

But the guideline contains some problems. One is its requirement that accused researchers must prove that their research was carried out in accordance with scientifically appropriate methods and procedures, and that their papers were written properly. In stating their cases, researchers are required to demonstrate the scientific grounding. If evidence provided by and explanations given by the researchers cannot overturn suspicions of inappropriate behavior, it will be determined that they committed misconduct.

This procedure runs counter to the practice followed in lawsuits — that those who file an accusation are obliged to prove misconduct by the accused. When an administrative body disciplines someone, the general principle is that the body has borne the burden of proof. This is the principle adopted in the United States on regulations concerning research misconduct. The education ministry’s guideline deviates from these conventional practices. Also, it does not specifically guarantee the right of the accused either to closely examine the accusation or to call a witness.

In determining whether misconduct was committed in research, an investigation panel of a research institute or a university is to make a “comprehensive judgment” by taking into account scientific and material evidence, acknowledgement by the accused researchers, and testimonies by others.

This differs from the practice in such countries as the U.S. and France, where the accused as well as the side making the accusations present evidence to an investigation committee that makes a decision.

Although the same type of procedure is used in Japanese civil lawsuits, the guideline does not explicitly mention it. This could lead to a conclusion not backed by firm evidence.

The guideline says to the effect that an investigation committee can request that re-experimentation be carried out to produce the same results that appeared in a scientific paper involving research in which misconduct is suspected.

But re-experimentation is a different matter from the issue of whether misconduct was committed in research. In the U.S., for example, re-experimentation is not required in a probe of a case where research misconduct is suspected. The ministry should review its guideline so that it does not result in unduly discouraging scientific research at universities and other institutes.

Apparently behind the rise in the number of cases of research misconduct is the growing pressure on researchers to make achievements quickly, which in turn is the result of government policy that has created a situation in which the supply of doctoral holders is greater than the demand for them.

The most important thing that the government can do is to create an environment in which researchers can focus on their work without worrying about their future employment.