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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
In Japan, Research Scandal Prompts Questions
Posted: Jul 3, 2014 4:58 PM
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From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday,
June 30, 2014. See
In Japan, Research Scandal Prompts Questions

By David McNeill


In a professional world dominated by middle-aged
men, Haruko Obokata stood out. The 31-year-old
female scientist led a research unit for cellular
programming at the Riken Center for Developmental
Biology. In January she stunned Japan's crusty
academic establishment when she was the lead
author of two papers in the British journal
Nature that suggested a leap forward in
regenerative medicine.

Japan's news media hailed Ms. Obokata, a former
researcher at the Harvard Medical School, as an
academic star, but the adulation was short-lived.
In February, Riken, a network of research
institutions that receive roughly $1-billion a
year from the government, set up an investigative
panel after being notified of problems in the
Nature papers. Three months later the panel
publicly shamed Ms. Obokata, accusing her of
fabricating data, doctoring images, and

Ms. Obokata's actions "lead us to the conclusion
that she sorely lacks, not only a sense of
research ethics, but also integrity and humility
as a scientific researcher," a damning report
concluded. The release of the report sent Ms.
Obokata, who admits mistakes but not ill intent,
to the hospital in shock for a week. Riken has
dismissed all her appeals, clearing the way for
disciplinary action, which she has pledged to

In June the embattled researcher agreed to
retract both Nature papers-under duress, said her
lawyer. On July 2, Nature released a statement
from her and the other authors officially
retracting the papers.

The seismic waves from Ms. Obokata's rise and
vertiginous fall continue to reverberate. Japan's
top universities are rushing to install
antiplagiarism software and are combing through
old doctoral theses amid accusations that they
are honeycombed with similar problems.

The affair has sucked in some of Japan's most
revered professors, including Riken's president,
Ryoji Noyori, a Nobel laureate, and Shinya
Yamanaka, credited with creating induced
pluripotent stem cells. Mr. Yamanaka, a professor
at Kyoto University who is also a Nobel laureate,
in April denied claims that he too had
manipulated images in a 2000 research paper on
embryonic mouse stem cells, but he was forced to
admit that, like Ms. Obokata, he could not find
lab notes to support his denial.

The scandal has triggered questions about the
quality of science in a country that still
punches below its international weight in
cutting-edge research. Critics say Japan's best
universities have churned out hundreds of
poor-quality Ph.D.'s. Young researchers are not
taught how to keep detailed lab notes, properly
cite data, or question assumptions, said Sukeyasu
Yamamoto, a former physicist at the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst and now an adviser to
Riken. "The problems we see in this episode are
all too common," he said.

Hung Out to Dry?

Ironically, Riken was known as a positive
discriminator in a country where just one in
seven university researchers are women-the lowest
share in the developed world. The organization
was striving to push young women into positions
of responsibility, say other professors there.
"The flip side is that they overreacted and maybe
went a little too fast," said Kathleen S.
Rockland, a neurobiologist who once worked at
Riken's Brain Science Institute. "That's a pity
because they were doing a very good job."

Many professors, however, accuse the institute of
hanging Ms. Obokata out to dry since the problems
in her papers were exposed. Riken was under
intense pressure to justify its budget with
high-profile results. Japan's news media have
focused on the role of Yoshiki Sasai, deputy
director of the Riken Center and Ms. Obokata's
supervisor, who initially promoted her, then
insisted he had no knowledge of the details of
her research once the problems were exposed.

Critics noted that even the head of the inquiry
into Ms. Obokata's alleged misconduct was forced
to admit in April that he had posted
"problematic" images in a 2007 paper published in
Oncogene. Shunsuke Ishii, a molecular geneticist,
quit the investigative committee.

Acknowledging flaws in the entire supervising
process would prompt firings and possible
government budget cuts, which is why Riken has
circled the wagons and heaped blame on Ms.
Obokata, said Thomas Knöpfel, a founder of
Riken's Brain Science Institute and now a leading
neuroscientist at Imperial College London. "It
appears to me that Riken is more concerned about
damage control and blame shifting" than about
clarification, he said.

Mr. Knöpfel in part blames the Obokata affair on
Riken's push to publish in high-impact journals,
"rather than generating good science." "My
observation was that Riken is driven by
individual egos and interests beyond the healthy
competition required for attaining a high
scientific and ethical standard."

For its part, Riken said it planned a thorough
review of its procedures and personnel.

"Those who were not found to have been involved
in research misconduct still bear a heavy
responsibility for their administrative
negligence, which allowed the research misconduct
to occur," it said in a statement. "These
individuals will also be subjected to
disciplinary measures in accordance with Riken's

The news media have not escaped blame either.
Desperate for a scientific success story,
journalists hyped Ms. Obokata as a sort of
academic idol similar to Japan's army of twee,
ephemeral female celebrities. Reporters who
visited her laboratory noted that the walls had
been painted pink and decorated with cartoon
characters. Television images focused on her
false eyelashes and a striking if impractical
wide-sleeved apron. "They built her up, then
knocked her down," said Shohei Yonemoto, a
professor at the Research Center for Advanced
Science and Technology in the University of Tokyo.

Shifting Responsibility

Ms. Obokata declined to comment for this article.
Naoki Namba, a spokesman for Riken, said she was
still under contract but a committee set up to
decide disciplinary measures will probably
recommend dismissal. Mr. Sasai, her supervisor,
also declined to comment. But in an April news
conference, he appeared to shift some of the
responsibility to Charles A. Vacanti, a Harvard
University professor who supervised Ms. Obokata's
research and was a co-author of the Nature papers.

Dr. Vacanti has stood by the scientific content
of the papers, which claimed to show that
pluripotent stem cells could be created by the
application of external stresses, such as a
bacterial toxin or a weak acid bath. He has
argued against withdrawing the papers and said
that, once the dust from the scandal settles, the
science underlying the "stimulus-triggered
acquisition of pluripotency" phenomenon will
"speak for itself." (Such cells can theoretically
be cultivated into any kind of living tissue,
meaning they might eventually be used to create
new human organs.)

Neither Harvard nor its affiliated Brigham and
Women's Hospital, where Dr. Vacanti works, would
comment on claims that they are struggling to
replicate Ms. Obokata's work. Meanwhile, the
debate on its merits rages on. Mr. Yamamoto and
Mr. Knöpfel are among those who think the
researcher is guilty of sloppiness but not
intentional fabrication. But PubPeer, an online
postpublication peer reviewer that raised
important questions about the Nature papers and
so probably triggered the Riken investigation,
supports retraction. "The papers have problems
that would have precluded publication had they
been identified in advance," said PubPeer's
anonymous peer reviewer.

In rejecting her appeals recently, Mr. Noyori,
Riken's president, asked Ms. Obokata to withdraw
one of the two papers containing "instances of
research misconduct." Ms. Obokata said through
her lawyer that she "cannot accept" the Riken
findings and has hinted at legal
action-potentially a long-drawn-out affair.

Mr. Yamamoto called her treatment and isolation
"appalling." "They have put her on the roof," he
said, "and taken away the ladder."
Update (7/2/2014, 6:49 p.m.): Shortly after the
publication of this article, Nature released a
statement in which Ms. Obokata and the other
authors officially retracted their papers. That
development has been added to this article.
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Haruko Obokata, a stem-cell
researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental
Biology, faced the news media in April after
being accused of fabricating data. The Asahi
Shimbun via Getty Images
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Ms. Obokata, who has admitted
mistakes but not ill intent, apologized at the
news conference. Jiji Press, AFP, Getty Images

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