Issue Date: February 12, 2007
THREE UNIVERSITIES in Japan recently resolved high-profile cases involving research fraud. With several other incidents in the U.S., Europe, and Asia having made headlines in the past few years, it seems as if an epidemic of ethical lapses is under way. On closer examination, the situation might not be that dire—or different from that of centuries ago.
"Dubious practice has been with us for a long time," says Tony Mayer, senior science policy adviser to the European Science Foundation and cochair of an international conference on research integrity scheduled for September. "Did Newton plagiarize Hooke? There are grounds for suspicion, shall we say."
More science is being done today than ever before, so it's likely more incidents are occurring, according to Nigel Lloyd, cochair of a workshop on integrity and misconduct that will be held in Tokyo later this month. But in terms of the ratio of misbehavers to the total number of scientists, he says, "I don't think we have any evidence that more people are behaving badly."
A heightened awareness of misconduct might be a consequence of greater media interest and better institutional mechanisms to detect misconduct, adds Lloyd, who is executive vice president of the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada, the primary government agency that funds research in the natural sciences and engineering in that country. Whether misconduct is rising or not, institutions appear to be earnest about investigating allegations and acting on their findings, as the three Japanese cases demonstrate.
ONE INCIDENT concerns University of Tokyo biochemistry professor Kazunari Taira and his research associate Hiroaki Kawasaki, whose RNA papers have appeared in journals including Nature and Nucleic Acids Research. Researchers from Japan and overseas alerted the RNA Society of Japan that they doubted the reproducibility of experiments in the publications. The society asked the University of Tokyo to look into the allegations.
A Dec. 27 statement on the university's website provides details on the outcome of its investigation of four articles authored by the researchers. The statement says Kawasaki failed to record experimental notes and claimed that many test samples and much of the raw data on which the papers were based were lost or destroyed. The university maintains there is no evidence the experiments were conducted as recorded in the papers and concludes Kawasaki faked some gene-sequencing data.
The university says Taira, as the senior scientist, neglected opportunities to appropriately supervise and verify Kawasaki's work. For years, Taira failed to grasp that Kawasaki was not recording experimental notes, according to the university. Furthermore, prior to the RNA Society's request for an investigation, society members and university colleagues warned Taira they had concerns about Kawasaki's experiments and papers. Taira did not follow up appropriately, the university says. As a result of its findings, the university has dismissed the two researchers.
Taira has retracted the papers but says Kawasaki "maintains that all the data and the original conclusions are valid." Taira admits he was "guilty of inadequate supervision of a junior colleague and overtrusting Dr. Kawasaki's work."
But Taira tells C&EN his own dismissal represents a "much harsher" disciplinary action than that taken in several recent cases at the university involving matters such as prostitution with a minor and the death of a researcher. He also believes it's unprecedented for "any professors who were not directly involved in misconduct to have been dismissed because of a junior's misconduct. I appear to have been made the scapegoat for this business, perhaps as a result of my refusal to indict Dr. Kawasaki for his actions."
A second case involves Osaka University's Akio Sugino, a professor in the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences. Complaints from coauthors of two papers for which Sugino was corresponding author prompted an investigation by the school's ethics and research conduct committee. The committee concluded that Sugino had fabricated and modified data in two Journal of Biological Chemistry papers on DNA replication, according to a statement posted on the university's website. The committee cleared his coauthors of any involvement in the fraud, noting that Sugino had not obtained their approval of the final manuscripts prior to publication.
According to the university, Sugino admits he fabricated some data in one of the papers, which he has now withdrawn. He concedes there are errors in the second paper, but he claims it contains no fabricated or modified data, the statement adds. On Dec. 20, the university dismissed Sugino for data forgery and falsification.
THE THIRD CASE involves Waseda University, which, on Dec. 19, posted a statement on its website regarding an investigation into misuse of research funds by an unnamed professor. The professor has been identified in the press as chemist Kazuko Matsumoto.
The investigation began in June, when a letter accusing a professor of embezzling public research funds tipped off the university's president. An investigating committee concluded that Matsumoto engaged in illicit use of the funds. Waseda recommended disciplinary action, and Matsumoto reportedly resigned in December. She also resigned as president-elect of the International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry last June.
Waseda has now instituted measures to prevent misappropriation of research funds and plans further reforms, including the introduction of a research ethics program for graduate students in 2008.
When asked about the prevalence of fraud in Japan, Akira Fujishima, president of the Chemical Society of Japan, says, "There is no reason to believe that these three are the only cases in our country." At the same time, he finds no reason to suspect that fraud is more common in Japan than elsewhere. "Both the appeal of having high-impact work and the penalties that they will suffer when misconduct is revealed are common to all research workers throughout the world," he says.
The situation is somewhat different with misconduct involving funding. Japan's spending on research has been increasing rapidly, Fujishima says. As a result, in some cases, institutes receive millions of dollars despite management deficiencies such as a lack of accountants. "Unless this kind of mismatch between funding and management systems is eliminated, problems will continue to occur," he predicts.
Furthermore, "for a long time, the funding system in our country was inflexible," fixing the use of grants too strictly, Fujishima says. Many institutes worked around the rules to help research proceed smoothly. Funding rules are now more flexible, however, so "fraud has decreased considerably," he says.
IN DECEMBER, Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (MEXT) released restrictive new guidelines for research funds, Fujishima notes. "These new guidelines force the universities and researchers to provide thorough details of how funds are used and to double-check that the funds are used properly. Thus, researchers will have difficulty in doing research freely." But Fujishima acknowledges that "this period of restriction is necessary to reestablish trust in the researchers and to establish better accounting systems within all research institutes."
Other countries are tightening up oversight of ethical matters. Last spring, for instance, the U.K. established a Research Integrity Office to provide guidance on research conduct in the health and biomedical sciences. Director Andy Stainthorpe says the program is a "pilot for extending this to the entire research domain." Canada, whose three major national granting agencies have set policies for themselves and the institutions they fund, is considering the establishment of a national body or framework that would set standards for research integrity, Lloyd says.
Lloyd's upcoming workshop will delve into such matters. Sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) and MEXT, the workshop will convene in Tokyo later this month. Attendees will explore "best practices that governments have put in place around the world" for ensuring scientific integrity and preventing misconduct, Lloyd says.
In September, the European Science Foundation and the Office of Research Integrity, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, will hold a complementary research integrity conference in Lisbon, Portugal. The meeting will give attendees from around the world an opportunity to compare their countries' attitudes and policies.
However good those procedures are, the work will never be finished. "It's an eternal vigilance issue," concedes Mayer, who is cochairing the conference. Continuing education of both new scientists and established researchers, Lloyd says, is critical so that they clearly understand what the expectations are and what constitutes misconduct.
Standards also need to be laid out for institutions, Mayer says, because they sometimes bend the rules. For example, he suspects that some institutions, "in order to report very low incidences, encourage people to take early retirement or even give them a very good reference to go and work somewhere else."
Lloyd says institutions also need mechanisms to protect innocent bystanders—usually graduate students who lose a supervisor or have to restart their research because it was based on some earlier fabricated data.
In addition, institutions "have got to be careful that they don't persecute the whistleblower," Mayer says. The accused researcher needs protections, too, because the accuser isn't always on the up-and-up. The whistleblowers must "make sure that they do not make the accusation because of a personal grievance."
Provisions also need to be in place for an appeal process, "which in some countries would be outside the institution, even through the judicial system in some cases," Lloyd says.
Finally, the punishment must fit the crime. Bottom line, Lloyd says, is that "penalties certainly should not be excessive, but they should be strong enough to deter misconduct."
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