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Investigation into motives behind science misconduct

Experts often point to the link between embarrassing retractions and tough pressure on academics to produce result-oriented investigations, but recent scandals have raised concerns of a more widespread culture of pressuring subordinates and other issues that lead to misconduct.

The University of Tokyo, the country’s most prestigious research institution, this month revealed the results of its year-long investigation into data falsification involving five papers supervised and published by the university’s Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences between 2008 and 2015. The scandal rocked the country’s scientific community last year.

It showed that rather than being isolated cases, intentional enhancement of images was common in that lab. The supervisor, a renowned Japanese cell biologist, Professor Yoshinori Watanabe, was identified as being mainly responsible for putting pressure on the co-author, his subordinate.

According to the report, Watanabe even taught his subordinates how to make these alterations to “enhance” the findings and make them more convincing. It also noted that the process was an “everyday practice”, according to accounts in Japanese media.

Watanabe has admitted errors in handling the data but denied fabrication charges.

Tokyo University has expressed regret and promised to develop new regulations to prevent similar incidents after the case of the five papers was made public by an anonymous tip-off last year. Penalties have not yet been determined.

Watanabe’s five-year grant of JPY416 million (US$3.8 million) from Japan’s science ministry, which should have run until March 2018, was already suspended in March this year.

New study on misconduct

In April six leading national universities launched a study into research misconduct, supported by a JPY30 million (US$274,000) fund over three years from the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development.

The investigation by Nagasaki, Shinshu, Niigata, Kobe, Tokushima and Kyushu universities includes experts from an array of fields such as legal studies, information science and ethics – the first survey of its kind in Japan which previously only looked narrowly at research misconduct in specific fields such as medicine and the life sciences.

Japan has registered more than 2,000 cases of research misconduct in medicine and life sciences since 2000 with 20 cases noted in 2012, according to a survey by the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy under the ministry of education.

Iekuni Ichikawa, a professor at Shinshu University studying research ethics, pointed to cosy ties between pharmaceutical companies and Japanese scientists as a core issue in the life sciences field. In an interview in the Japan Times this month, he said such relations can cause ethical and conflict of interest issues.

But there may be broader and more complex issues. The investigation will include interviews with academics previously exposed for engaging in research misconduct in order to find common factors, other than the desire to achieve quick results.

“Against new global competition and the domestic challenge of dwindling research funding, universities grapple with renewed coercion to show short-term achievements. This is a core issue in the rise in wrongdoings that have surfaced, in particular in science where Japan has an international edge,” said Yuto Kitamura, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education, University of Tokyo.

Government funding to support research is also declining, creating an unsettling environment that threatens freedom in academic research. At the same time competitive pressure on Japanese scientists has increased as universities in Singapore and China have begun to overtake Japan in recent international rankings with the Times Higher Education World University Rankings putting Japan’s top research university, the University of Tokyo, in ninth place behind universities in China, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Guidelines

The Japanese education ministry revamped its guidelines first drawn up in the wake of the so-called Obokata research scandal in 2014. The guidelines call for voluntary self-discipline by researchers and the scientific community and for greater responsibility for universities and research institutions in mentoring young researchers to ensure impartiality.

Researcher Haruko Obokata was forced to resign in December 2014 from the RIKEN Centre for Developmental Biology in Kobe after other scientists had failed to reproduce a new purportedly simple way of generating pluripotent stem cells. In April 2014 she was found guilty by her institution of research misconduct for manipulating images and pulled the articles from the science journal Nature.

The scandal was hugely damaging for Japan’s scientific research community and misconduct guidelines were issued in 2015 after criticism that the country had fewer safeguards than other developed countries.

The latest version of the ministry guidelines issued in 2016, while not binding, clearly puts the onus on universities to prevent irregularities with a new stipulation that researchers found to have committed misconduct should return the funds used in their research. Also, the government could stop offering funds to that university in the future.

Experts contend the latest scandals, such as the one involving the University of Tokyo, will mean the government will invoke these guidelines more strictly.

Greater openness

But others believe that greater openness on research results could also prevent some misconduct.

Scientist Ban Hideyuki, spokesperson for the Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center or CNIC, a respected civic organisation, said making scientific research accessible to the public is a critical factor in preventing negligence.

“The achievements of scientific research must be judged by society for its merits, such as in the nuclear field where safety remains a crucial goal. Thus, sharing research with the public promotes transparency and narrows malpractice in academic research,” he told University World News.

CNIC was co-founded by the late nuclear chemistry researcher, Jinzaburo Takagi, a leading grassroots scientist. The organisation has gained public attention as a provider of information on safety issues in the nuclear industry after the shocking Fukushima nuclear accident that affected thousands of local people when dangerous radiation spewed out of reactors hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011, and information was not readily forthcoming from government sources.

Masashi Goto, a former nuclear plant designer and containment vessel designer with Toshiba Corporation that constructed the Fukushima reactors, launched an independent grassroots organisation which organised a study group of researchers in different fields who come together to debate their research, which Goto points out is another important process to curtail negligence.

“Tackling research misconduct is not based on regulations. Rather the culture of sharing and debate among academicians is crucial to prevent misconduct,” he said.
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