The Yomiuri Shimbun Misconduct in research greatly undermines confidence in science. What happened at the University of Tokyo is regrettable.
The university has determined that Prof. Yoshinori Watanabe of its Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences and a former associate professor, who was a subordinate of Watanabe, committed wrongdoing including data fabrication and data tampering in five research papers.
The five papers were published in Nature and other scientific journals between 2008 and 2015. Subsidies totaling nearly ¥1.5 billion were provided by the central government, among others, to help finance the research.
The wrongdoing includes making charts using fabricated test data without conducting experiments and altering images through processing to exaggerate contrast.
This conduct threatens to undermine the credibility of those research papers as a whole.
An investigation committee of the university had investigated the case following an anonymous complaint that was filed last autumn.
In regard to the alleged fabrication, Watanabe offered the committe the explanation that he could not fully check the data presented by research staff.
The committee concluded that the image for the papers had been manipulated. Watanabe admitted that the images “were processed inadequately” but emphasized he “had no intention whatsoever of overturning the conclusion of the papers.”
Reporting accurate test results is an ironclad rule that should be observed by researchers. It has to be said that Watanabe and his assistant researcher made light of this principle.
Watanabe, who has been with the university since he was an undergraduate student in its School of Science, is a noted researcher on chromosomes involved in cell division.
Reform researchers’ mentality
To emphasize the results of laboratory tests, Watanabe actively directed the manipulation of images. There was an atmosphere in which nobody could refute his commands. This was pointed out by the investigation panel as a reason behind the misconduct.
The case most likely represents the emergence of a negative aspect resulting from the fact that an authoritative professor has long controlled a laboratory office.
Manipulation was also found in a large number of research papers at the same institute in 2014. In the wake of that incident, the university and the institute took measures to prevent a recurrence of misconduct, including making it mandatory to keep laboratory test data for a certain period and attending ethics seminars. Some of the latest irregularities were committed after this.
The institute cannot escape criticism that it as a whole has been lax on misconduct involving research papers. Reform of researchers’ way of thinking must be expedited.
Various motives could be behind the manipulation of papers, including fierce competition among researchers, the honor granted at the time of a great discovery and the acquisition of research funds. The problem over [the supposed discovery of] stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells, which came out in 2014, is still fresh in our memory.
In the life science field, research results can easily change if there is a slight difference in methods and conditions. Given the improvement in the performance of personal computers, it has become possible to conveniently modify images. This could be a factor behind a ceaseless occurrence of misconduct in compiling research papers.
Universities and academic societies are called on to constantly reexamine the system of verifying research papers.