Tag Archives: corruption and cheating in science and research

A FINAL JUDGMENT IS GIVEN TO DR. HARUKO OBOKATA: MISCONDUCT OF RESEARCH!

 

Scientific research findings are not always valid!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)
Scientific research findings are not always valid!   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

 

Unfortunately, some doctoral scientists cheat.  With the terrible job pressures  in working on research at modern universities, the temptation to take the easy way out by being dishonest is always present (see: “Introduction to Cheating and Corruption in Science”).  Examples of dishonesty in science continue to pop up almost every month [e.g., 1-4], and many more escape notice.  Fortunately, most professional scientists have good ethical standards and do not cheat.  The few corrupted scientists who are caught usually are penalized in a rather soft manner, and publicity always is minimized so as to avoid undermining the enormous trust that the public has for professional scientists.

This article presents the sad story of Dr. Haruko Obokata, a young Japanese researcher who now has been very thoroughly investigated and penalized for research fraud [e.g., 3,4].  This case is particularly worthy of attention because it dramatically illustrates what can make a scientist cheat (see: “Why Would any Scientist ever Cheat?” ), and the consequences that can follow later.

Background to the controversy about Dr. Obokata’s research. 

Dr. Obokata worked as a researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, one of the most prestigious research institutes in Japan.  She investigated “stem cells“, which are pluripotent cells that can be induced to become different normal cell types.  Medical science is very interested in stem cells for possible use in repairing and replacing damaged organs.  Dr. Obokata reported finding a simple and easy new method to produce many stem cells with 2 papers in the stellar science journal, Nature.  This research finding was a big surprise; her new method was totally unexpected, gave wonderful results, and was labeled as being revolutionary.  Dr. Obokata  became very famous overnight; many news stories about her spectacular research results were issued, and interviews with her were featured on television.  Soon after her publications appeared, other scientists eagerly tried to duplicate her reported results, but they all were not successful; this rapidly led to many questions about her amazing research findings and the truthfulness of her research.  For science, research results must be reproducible to be considered valid.  

Due to the enlarging doubts raised about her research results, local investigations were undertaken, but these only produced more questions and more controversy.  Extensive investigations followed, and produced no verification of her new methodology.  Throughout this controversy, Dr. Obokata maintained that her research results were real, but she was not able to explain why other scientists could not duplicate her results.  Many coworkers, supervisors, and other researchers then were questioned as the large controversy expanded further.  Finally, Dr. Obokata was asked to duplicate her own published lab results at Riken while she was being observed by a panel of fellow scientists; after 8 months of work in the lab, the results of this definitive test were negative [3].  Just a few months ago, after almost 2 years of investigations by institutions and governmental bodies,  an expert panel in Japan finished their deliberations and issued a final verdict that Dr. Obokata was guilty of research misconduct [3,4].  

Consequences of the guilty verdict for Dr. Obokata. 

This verdict now is finalized, the papers in Nature were retracted, and, Dr. Obokata has resigned from her position at Riken and been fined [3,4].  The penalties in this judgment also include reprimands for several of her supervisors and associates; one supervisor was so upset at the shame of this very public situation that he committed suicide at age 52 [3].  A number of high officials at the reorganized Riken were replaced in the accompanying administrative scandal; due to this widely publicized situation, the national government was stimulated to issue revised standards for research conduct and misconduct [4]. 

Many feel that the cause of Dr. Obokata’s unethical activities with data manipulation and fabrication once again lies in the intense pressures on academic scientists to make important discoveries, publish spectacular reports, and obtain more research funding.  The exact same pressures today are acting upon very many other university scientists all over the world; undoubtedly, some others also will succumb to the temptation to use dishonest means to overcome these job pressures.  

Is this misconduct a general feature in science, or is it peculiar to certain cultures? 

As I have noted previously (see: “Why is it so Very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?” ), the ultimate cause of unethical conduct in scientific research is simply human nature.  Scientists are just like all other people in that they can and do make mistakes and wrong judgments.  Thus, I believe that this old problem of dishonesty in science is very general.  Human cultures certainly do influence their science.  In some countries, new doctoral theses complete with tables of data and full analyses are available for purchase.  In such  cases, more dishonesty must be expected later when the new doctoral scientist starts researching and publishing.  However, even large modern countries with very extensive good research operations still have ongoing problems with corruption and misconduct of research.  Thus, this general problem is not only due to culture or nationality. 

The case with Dr. Obokata is somewhat less severe than another recent finding of large shocking misconduct at the University of Tokyo [e.g., 4].  These scandals led to  important changes in policies, awareness, and education about  science ethics in Japan.  I must explicitly note here that this problem is not peculiar to Japan!  I have no reservations in making that statement, since I know many honest scientists in Japan, and always am most positively impressed with the high quality of Japanese science.  These recent ethical scandals in Japan’s research enterprise are just like those in other modern countries.  

What does this example of misconduct say about modern science?  

The events in Dr. Obokata’s case are typical for previous instances where cheating at research has been caught: (1) it takes a whole big bunch of time and effort to finally reach a verdict, simply because it is extremely difficult to ever prove dishonesty when the alleged perpetrator maintains insistence that the false results are really true; (2) the investigations always expand to include collaborators and coworkers, supervisors, reviewers and editors, and, the prevailing atmosphere for professional ethics at the institution(s) involved; (3) after a verdict finally is reached, all of science gets a bad name; and, (4) although reforms are made to prevent this from happening so easily, the actual causes for misconduct in modern science always remain unaffected

Nobody ever seems to focus attention and reforms on the gigantic pressures faced by all scientists doing research in modern universities (e.g., get more research grant money, get more research publications, get more experimental results and more discoveries, get more research breakthroughs, etc.).  These are not simply job duties or expectations, but rather are constant worries for university scientists.  Failure to succeed in these efforts will have bad consequences for the career of any faculty scientist.  By not countering the actual causes of dishonesty and corruption the only possible expectation is that this problem for science will not only continue, but also will increase.  The case of Dr. Obokata is not unique; many other cheaters are never caught, and the pressures to be dishonest remain active throughout the entire world of science.  

Concluding remarks. 

Dishonesty in science and cheating at research are ongoing very general problems that will not disappear due to wishful thinking.  Most cheating in science begins with a single individual, but soon spreads to involve associated research workers and administrators.  Much stronger penalties, much closer attention to detecting misconduct, and much better training about the necessity for total honesty in science are needed (see: “Why is it  so Very Hard to Eliminate Fraud and Corruption in Scientists?” ).  Cheating in order to get more research grant money is particularly liable to be increasing due to the overwhelming hyper-competition for acquiring research grants among modern university scientists (see: “All about Today’s Hyper-competition for Research Grants” ). 

[1]  Barbash, F., 2014.  An obscure academic journal.  A memorable peer review scandal.  The Washington Post, July 11, 2014, Morning Mix.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/07/11/the-most-brazen-peer-review-scandal-anyone-can-remember/

[2]  Barbash, F., 2015.  Major publisher retracts 43 scientific papers amid wider fake peer-review scandal.  The Washington Post, March 27, 2015, Morning Mix.  Available on the internet at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/03/27/fabricated-peer-reviews-prompt-scientific-journal-to-retract-43-papers-systematic-scheme-may-affect-other-journals/ .

[3]  Rasko, J. and Power, C., 2015.  What pushes scientists to lie?  The disturbing but familiar story of Haruko Obokata.  The Guardian , February 18, 2015.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/feb/18/haruko-obokata-stap-cells-controversy-scientists-lie .  SPECIAL NOTE:  This is an extremely well-written and very perceptive report.  All scientists should read it!  Ditto for grad students and postdocs!

[4]  The Japan Times, Opinion, 2015.  Blight of research misconduct.  The Japan Times, February 18, 2015.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/02/18/editorials/blight-research-misconduct .

 

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