Misconduct – When science turns into scam

What’s the worst thing that can happen to a scientist apart from having to give up one’s career because of funding problems? Stem cell researcher Haruko Obokata would probably have a good answer for that. She’s been in the media since the beginning of the year: first as female scientist role-model with a spectacular discovery, then newspapers have branded her as an impostor and national disgrace.

For all of you who’ve missed the headlines (if you haven’t, just skip this paragraph) let me summarise what happened: In January, Obokata and her team published two papers in the prestigious journal Nature, announcing that they had found a very simple method to convert human immune cells into stem cells, mainly just by growing them under acidic conditions. Only a week’s work, the authors claimed, was enough to produce a colony of pluripotent stem cells (or STAP cells), something that with standard iPS methods takes a month and involves several culturing steps. The protocol was so simple that it would have allowed any lab with standard equipment to produce stem cells in no time. After much initial excitement several scientists tried to reproduce the results of the – seemingly foolproof – new method, some of them even in a live blog –  they all failed. Meanwhile, a number of discrepancies were found in the papers by attentive readers and published online. A formal investigation by the RIKEN insititute, where the main work was completed, ensued and found Obokata guilty of misconduct on the 1st of April. No april fools’ joke intended. Find the more detailed story here.

Yesterday, the scientific journal Science announced that Obokata had finally agreed to retract both papers in Nature that reported her work. Which basically means resignation and her confession that the papers are indeed flawed. She held up until the very last, but in the end with all her supporters lost and the results of the genetic testing on the table which confirmed that the STAP cells were not produced from the mouse strain she indicated, she had run out of options.

Why did they do it?

Probably everyone who’s heard of the issue has asked the same question: why did she do it? How could she think she would get away with it? A researcher cannot simply throw a paradigm-changing proposition out there and not expect peers in the field to scrutinise it until they’ve succeeded in reproducing the data. Cheating scientist are likely to get caught pretty quickly, in particular if the topic is relevant to the field (which it will be if published by Nature). If STAP would have been real it would have revolutionised the whole stem cell field, and that’s clearly what it was intended to do.

Perhaps Obokata really believed that her method was working – even though she was lacking final proof? Other labs have reported artifact green Oct-4 staining in their cells – autofluorescence – which means these cells seem to express stem cell markers when in reality they don’t. Autofluorescence is a common problem in light microscopy. Every scientist knows and despises it. It is unlikely that Obokata could have been deluded by such a basic interference. And again, the manipulated images indicate a deliberate attempt to portray her findings in a different light. Paraphrasing whole sections of a PhD thesis also does not signify good scientific practice. But why the cheating on such a massive, obvious scale?

I already pointed out the worst thing that can happen to a scientist: to be forced to give up the career because of funding issues. And some researchers go through great lenghts to make sure that doesn’t happen. Finishing a PhD project without a first author publication puts an end to their careers for most scientists. In Obokata’s case she did have 2 first author publications in lower journals in the year she obtained her degree in engineering (2011). However, her thesis project was unrelated to the STAP work which she reportedly came up with at Harvard, where she spent two years in Charles Vacanti’s lab, before finishing her PhD in Japan. The STAP ideas probably won her the position as a guest researcher at RIKEN and, in 2013, the appointment as group leader in Cellular Reprogramming. Having worked on an allegedly revolutionising discovery for 5 years with nothing to show in the end would have been a humiliating tragedy, to say the least. It might certainly have endangered her position. However, the mistake was for the researcher and collaborators to take on such a high risk project in the first place, and the institute to support it without checking whether accurate scientific practice was adhered to.

Perhaps this was how it all started for Obokata. Perhaps it was just a simple, tempting idea during a PhD project that went out of control because safety mechanisms were not in place to prevent her from investing too much time into a concept based on wrong assumptions. We will probably never know.

Does modern science encourage people to cheat?

Photoshopping your way into Nature?
Photoshopping your way into Nature?

To focus on unreasonable goals is not a rarity in research, especially not during early career stages. It is part of the training to learn to distinguish between studies that will result in new findings and those which won’t. But usually a PhD adviser or group leader is at hand who can point out misguided approaches or mistakes and these projects will not be carried over into senior positions. RIKEN finds harsh words for Obokata in its formal research paper investigation. Their conclusion is that “she sorely lacks, not only a sense of research ethics, but also integrity and humility as a scientific researcher”. Fact is, as a PhD student you hardly get these values taught these days. Research ethics is not on a typical student’s To Do list and it is certainly not asked for in the respective transferable skills logs of most PhD programmes. Although many of us initially join “to pursue the truth”, reality sinks in quickly. The main request you’ll hear from your PI is not “Have you done your work properly?” but “Where’s the new data?” and “How are you coming along with the paper?”. If you’re lucky enough to have a direct competitor who might scoop you any minute then there’s also a significant amount of time pressure involved to get your research published. You need more controls? Your new transgenic mouse strain is not ready yet? Well, that’s your problem. The temptation to just make up the data you’re missing is high, especially since there’s so much at stake. Today’s science system does not reward the diligent and ethical – it rewards the fast and blatant, just like any other business.

I’m not looking for excuses. There certainly are none for cases like Obokata. They undermine the trust in science and do a lot of damage. But it’s a bit too easy to put her on display as the main scapegoat and blame her behaviour solely on a “lack of morals”. I do not know her. But she might have been as enthusiastic and naive as any PhD student when she started her journey into research. There are more sides to this story and one of them is certainly a flawed environment that has allowed this misconduct to happen. Morally flawed scientists need to be identified and sifted out early on and the importance of ethical behaviour has to be taught. Some European framework programmes, for instance, organise compulsory Bioethics courses for all graduate students they fund. Two sessions I attended were held by Swiss bioethicist Alexandre  Mauron and I can highly recommend them. Although scientific misconduct is not the primary concern of most bioethics courses, which typically focus on ethical issues brought about by scientific progress, it does fall under its general scope and should be emphasised more. Of course this will not deter a truly amoral, attention-seeking scientist to cheat, but for the rest of the field it can act as a reminder and perhaps inspiration.

Equally, no-one ever gave a sufficient explanation as to why Obokata’s research was finally published by Nature after being rejected the first time. Or why neither her co-authors nor the peer reviewers found any mistakes. How are we all going to respond to the next big announcement in the cell reprogramming field? Even Shinya Yamanaka, who pioneered iPS cell research and was awarded the nobel prize for it, talked highly of Obokata’s research after it had just been published. He obviously trusted Nature’s peer review system, just like everyone else.

Permanent link to this article: https://curiousaboutscience.net/misconduct-science-turns-scam/


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    • Kif on June 9, 2014 at 11:01 pm
    • Reply

    Nicely written Christine! These days everybody want to do fast-food-science and earn publication currency! True problems is that we lack an ideal model for doing science. Unfortunately, the model currently we have is bit of corporate-driven, i.e., more on money making science – a journal will make a profit out of it’s ground-breaking paper and an individual will get his job, so that he can have his bread. Certainly, 50 years ago science wasn’t done this way. Change is of course inevitable, but not a change that will lead to fade away the originality. Here is an article on why scientific genius is extinct – http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v493/n7434/full/493602a.html.

    I get your point on ethics. By wrong doing, a scientist not only ruins his/her career but spoils whole reputation of science itself and eventually public will not trust science and scientists. I don’t know how many of non-scientists knows about these kind of misconducts. If a good number of them knows and aware, they would parade against scientists and funding.

    It is certainly key to young researchers to know what is right and wrong in research. I will be discussing this very same topic in a summer school on ethics next month in Helsinki. Ethics is as important as other extra-lab skills we learn during PhD. Science without ethics/morality, wherever let it get published, for me, it goes into bin!

    1. Many thanks, Kif, for your very insightful post. I agree with all the points you made – especially about the damage scientific misconduct can do to the whole field and also to public perception of research in general. Scientists are currently among the most trusted professions, let’s try and keep it that way (I do think most of us deserve the trust).
      The summer school on ethics sounds really interesting! Thanks for pointing it out to me, so far I didn’t even know that events like this exist. I will certainly watch out for them in the future, I think it is highly important that we talk about ethical issues in science.

    • Sake lover on July 25, 2014 at 2:52 am
    • Reply

    Dear Mr. Weber

    Thank you so much for explanation about the circumstance around the scientific field.
    It makes my thought clearer.
    But I feel some necessity to post my opinion from Japan, and would like you to know the detail before judging herself or the ”STAP” phenomenon,because there are few news sources about this case from Japan to overseas(and some of information are incorrect).

    So, please allow me to comment on this site.

    ○Your comment
    “the scientific journal Science announced that Obokata had finally agreed to retract both papers in Nature that reported her work. Which basically means resignation and her confession that the papers are indeed flawed. She held up until the very last, but in the end with all her supporters lost and the results of the genetic testing on the table which confirmed that the STAP cells were not produced from the mouse strain she indicated, she had run out of options.”
    “Perhaps Obokata really believed that her method was working – even though she was lacking final proof? Other labs have reported artifact green Oct-4 staining in their cells –autofluorescence – which means these cells seem to express stem cell markers when in reality they don’t. Autofluorescence is a common problem in light microscopy. Every scientist knows and despises it. It is unlikely that Obokata could have been deluded by such a basic interference. “

    ○My opinion
    It is too early to judge that “Obokata” misconduct the result of the study, although she admitted her falsification of the image.
    Because –
    1) 2-3 days ago, Riken admitted the flaws are found in “the genetic testing” itself . The test is not necessary the evidence that “the STAP cells were not produced from the mouse strain she indicated”. Investigation for “the genetic test” has not finished yet.
    2) Obokata still insists that “STAP” phenomenon is truly exists, and for proving it, she started to experiment again in the lab of RIKEN with surveillance cameras.
    After re-experiment, it will be clear 1) if the STAP phenomenon exists or not (including if “Oct-4 staining in their cells” is “autofluorescence” or not). 2)in what part there are flaws 3)how much amount of penalty she has to be imposed on.

    This study was experimented by some researchers(not only Obokata). It is heard that she was in charge of “Oct-4”part and producing “STAP cells” part, and
    another co-author was in charge of producing “STAP cells – SC” part.
    Obokata is doing re-experiment about her part, while the co-author is reluctant to do re-experiment his part for some reason.

    ○Your comment
    “But it’s a bit too easy to put her on display as the main scapegoat and blame her behaviour solely on a “lack of morals”.
    “There are more sides to this story and one of them is certainly a flawed environment that has allowed this misconduct to happen. ”

    ○My opinion
    I totally agree with your thought in this part. Most of other Japanese scientists and medias are attacking just on her, even though this is the comprehensive problem.
    Some of them are violating her privacy by leaking personal information and broadcasting her mistakes exaggeratedly to put shady images on her.
    It is extremely harsh attack.
    This is reason why I have compassion on her and I can not help but taking supportive position.

    Thank you for reading my comment.

    1. Many thanks for your thoughtful and very observant reply! You are right: I didn’t really have access to japanese media while writing this article and therefore mostly had to rely on what the english-speaking world reports about this case. However, these reports are typically very one-sided, some exaggerated and most of them focus more on criticism/blame than analysis of the circumstances. Not many details of the investigation have been released anyway so it is difficult to see what really happened. I absolutely agree with you: the truth is what is important here and I will certainly have a look at the results of the verification experiments you mentioned if they are published.

      Regarding the blaming and the extremely harsh criticism from the scientific community: I understand why you feel compassion and I think it cannot be right to blame Obokata alone for everything that happened. As a fellow researcher I can’t help but think what I would have done in her situation (probably never submitted to Nature in the first place…). I think she must have been under immense pressure from the scientific community and also the media in the past months – her career is basically in pieces, her face will forever be associated with fraud if its up to the media. Even if she still believes in STAP and has not done what people accuse her of: the reaction from the media would probably even force an innocent person into hiding or, worse, falsely admitting the fraud. Indeed, she has falsified data in the papers and that eventually brought her down. But what if the idea behind it was genuine? At that point – with everyone accusing her and pointing at the evidence – there was perhaps no other option but to give in. She basically lost all her support.

      If STAP cells exist I hope she will be able to prove it. If it was indeed scientific misconduct people should leave her alone, she’s been punished enough. It is one thing to pay for a mistake you made – but having the media and international community involved in this is persecution.

      Once again, thank you for your insightful words! I hope the international community will at some point learn what really happened.

    • Sake lover on July 25, 2014 at 11:51 pm
    • Reply

    Thank you so much for your fast reply!
    And I am so happy to meet the person who agree with my thought.
    Actually, scapegoating on her is going on by not only medias and scientific society, but also people who believe information from them or hater of young woman.
    I summed up the mistakes she did and admitted.

    a)Falsification of 2 images.
    b)”Copy and Paste” of the sentences from NIH homepage without note.*
    *She did not copy on main body of the thesis.

    I can not judge how huge these mistakes are.
    But other information are conveyed wrongly or exaggeratedly.
    Such as the rumor that a)she will be arrested,b)had wrong relationship with her boss,c)mixed ES cells with changing mice,etc.

    “If STAP cells exist I hope she will be able to prove it. If it was indeed scientific misconduct people should leave her alone, she’s been punished enough. It is one thing to pay for a mistake you made – but having the media and international community involved in this is persecution.”

    You perfectly convey what I really want to say!
    Thanks again!

    1. It seems like the media are really giving her a hard time these days: http://www.japantoday.com/category/national/view/nhk-apologizes-to-obokata-after-she-is-injured-while-fleeing-reporters This has to stop!

    • Sake lover on July 27, 2014 at 3:39 pm
    • Reply

    I posted my comment for the article you linked.
    It takes time a bit,so,I post in this space too as a reference.

    If the comment can not be posted for some reason,I will ask this to someone I know.

    Thank you.

    -My comment-
    I am one of Japanese who get angry and furious of this news.We have a supportive group in Japan,and all of us really want to act for her.
    But she has strong will for proving STAP cells theory,and really focusing on just her experiment. This is reason why we are acting with politeness “so far”,such as protesting by sending e-mails to medias, etc.

    On the behalf of the group, there are the things we really would like to ask for all of the reader of this article.

    1 Please try not to comment based on biased information*
    Most of the information from Japan about her is wrong or unconfirmed.I have never experienced such a situation that there are huge gap between information from news and what she insist(We can see her insist on the group’s Facebook.Sometimes,her lawyer,Hideo Miki,posts her comment.)

    2 Until the re-experiment completed, please be patient to judge if the STAP theory is true or not
    There are possibilities it is valid or fault or partially valid(fault).
    But it is never too late to judge after completing it.

    I know most of you are irritated of this fuss,because some comment from overseas is getting harsh for her too.

    In this 6 months,she has been scapegoated very harshly from scientific society, Japanese medias,and people who has malicious intent.I have never seen it nether in whole my life in Japan.
    Of course,she made mistakes, but they are trying to deprive of dignity from her by exaggerating things or revealing her privacy.


    I hope you understand our thought.

  1. I am very sad and shocked to hear that Yoshiki Sasai, a co-author of controversial research papers on so-called STAP cells, committed suicide: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/05/national/embattled-stap-study-co-author-dies-after-apparent-suicide-bid/#.U-EyOfldV8F

      • Music lover on August 7, 2014 at 11:23 pm
      • Reply

      I am deeply sad too.I can not say any word.I do not want to see such a vicious cycle anymore…

    • Sake lover on June 1, 2015 at 11:55 am
    • Reply

    Somehow, I feel like commenting the article almost a year ago.
    It was so sad that she could not verify the STAP cell “in the way of the thesis”.
    But I still have compassion for her, because I can imagine there are so many complication behind.

    In my opinion,this incident was very symbolic of state in Japan.
    Some people criticize others in non-productive way without thinking about their background.

    Anyway,thank you again for posting this article,sharing your thought and discussing with me.

    I will be happy if we can share thoughts about scientific matter,including this incident.
    Now,I am wondering what to do,including just leaving her alone.

    Best regard.

  1. […] case might be made like this: Only think about the acid bath stem cells scam (that one will always be first). Or the patient who grew a tumour in his spine after a stem […]

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