Scientific misconduct is a universal problem. Policies to investigate and prevent it, however, are patchy. Japan is now taking welcome steps to address the issue.
Japan has certainly produced some of the more bizarre cases of scientific fraud identified in recent years. In 2000, an amateur archaeologist was caught on film burying stone tools that he later unearthed as evidence of human civilization — his ‘discoveries’ over two decades falsely pushed back Japanese history by 650,000 years and corrupted a generation of history textbooks (see Nature 408, 280; 2000).
In 2009, a University of Tokyo professor, Serkan Anilir, was found to have lied about several of his career achievements, including his claim to be the first Turk in a NASA programme: an image of him wearing a spacesuit was uncovered as a fake. And in 2012, the 20-year career of an anaesthesiologist came under question amid the record retraction of more than 100 of his papers (see Nature 489, 346–347; 2012).
There is more to these cases than embarrassing tales of individuals gone off the rails. They indicate a lack of oversight in research and the common cultural reluctance of colleagues to act on suspicions for fear of challenging their peers. They highlight how misconduct is not reported enough in Japan, partly because the country has lacked a high-level agency to deal with it.
Japan is now preparing to clean up its scientific act. At a 14 April meeting of the Council for Science and Technology Policy (CSTP), the nation’s highest science-policy organization, an eight-person subcommittee called for the cultivation of research integrity in individual researchers, and for the setting up of fraud prevention and response measures at the institutional level to restore public faith in science.
The council’s chair, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, expressed concern that “the recent rash of cases involving scientific misconduct threatens to erode the foundation of our research”. He noted that an approach to misconduct based purely on the experience of individual cases is inadequate; instead, he has asked the CSTP to develop measures “from a broad perspective”.
In its call for action, the CSTP cited the ongoing case of Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe. In January, she published research in this journal that suggested adult cells can be reprogrammed into stem cells through stress. Within weeks, allegations emerged that the work contained errors. On 1 April, RIKEN charged Obokata with misconduct. She is appealing the decision.
It is unclear how Japan will act on the CSTP call for action, but the country should take this opportunity to create an agency, akin to the US Office for Research Integrity, that can handle allegations of fraud and misconduct in a systematic way and encourage whistleblowers to come forward. The need for such an agency has been noted often, including in these pages (see Nature 437, 595–596; 2005).
Researchers now deal with more data than ever before, and the evaluation of misconduct allegations often comes down to distinguishing sloppiness from deception in the presentation of data. For this reason, Japanese institutions should be given funding to educate their researchers in the responsibilities of data management. Whatever the outcome of the CSTP’s proposals, the high level of attention given to the issue is long overdue.
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