Japan’s media have played a large part in exacerbating the effects of a fraud.
It is a shame that Shinya Yamanaka’s recent Nobel prize had to be tainted by the shenanigans of Hisashi Moriguchi, the University of Tokyo project scientist who fabricated a story about having used Yamanaka’s fêted technology on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to treat patients who had heart failure.
The poor quality of journalism that led to the story being so widely reported was not an isolated incident in the coverage of science, in Japan or elsewhere. The Yomiuri Shimbun’s presentation of Moriguchi’s ‘accomplishments’ was particularly disappointing. But other newspapers, including the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, have now admitted to having run unverified stories about Moriguchi over the past decade. Given the esoteric nature of the studies involved, reporting on science can be intimidating. So here are some practical steps to help a journalist challenge a specialist.
One can start by looking at publications. All scientists publish their results. If they don’t it is a red flag. The publications give a scientist’s affiliations, so if there is any doubt, it is easy to verify whether a scientist actually works where they say they do (a quick e-mail to Harvard University could have saved the Yomiuri Shimbun a lot of embarrassment). Publications also list the names of collaborators (making it easy to confirm with them that the scientist has done the experiments claimed), the names of the funders (making it easy to check whether resources were available) and declarations of conflicts of interest (revealing potential biases).
Most importantly, a journalist should talk to other researchers — those who do not collaborate with the scientist in question — about the study’s significance and feasibility. Such researchers can usually be found by consulting references in the publication. If not — and an absence of proper references would be a warning sign — an Internet search will quickly bring up names. Although probably truer of North America and Europe than elsewhere, scientists are generally committed to keeping junk out of the literature. If it looks like junk, they’ll tell you.
Of course, Moriguchi said that his latest results were not yet published. That should have triggered further questioning. Why would he present his results to the media first? Some scientists have a reason for doing so; Moriguchi did not. And it should have prompted a closer look at his work experience and past publications. Why do records of his career — which were available online — suggest that he had little or no experience in the field in which he was claiming to have made a revolutionary breakthrough? Why did he profess to work in a non-existent university Division of iPS Cell Research and Application?
And why was he taking an unconventional and unfamiliar technology to the clinic? When he was questioned directly, as he was by Nature, things got worse. Why, for example, did he refuse to give the names of collaborators on the latest study? Poking the surface led to an outpouring of dubious statements.
“ Why would Moriguchi present his results to the media first? ”
People get away with fraud everywhere, but in Japan it seems that there are cultural factors that mean it goes unreported. Japanese scientists are less likely to be critical of their colleagues; there is less protection of whistleblowers who might not want to risk their careers; and journalists in Japan can be too polite, perhaps intimidated by the illustrious image carried by sensei and afraid to ask awkward questions. Possibly because of a lack of confidence in their English or because of differences between time zones, they often do not contact scientists overseas.
The situation is exacerbated by a recent Japanese epidemic: iPS-cell mania. With the excitement over Yamanaka’s pioneering results, media outlets are rushing to get new iPS-cell stories first, sometimes regardless of their quality. This tendency is fuelled by a paranoid attachment to iPS-cell technology. Many news stories describe an international race to translate iPS-cell research into medical advances, which Japan might lose. This fear seems to have inspired Moriguchi, who lamented in 2009 that Japan was in danger of falling behind in iPS-cell research (in a Correspondence in Nature: H. Moriguchi and C. Sato Nature 457, 257; 2009), and the Yomiuri reporters, who even envisaged a ‘flexible’ approval system in the United States that might allow Moriguchi to continue with his research.
This is all very silly. The beautiful thing about iPS-cell technology — and a major reason it won the Nobel prize — is that it can be used easily by scientists everywhere. If Japan wants to show its pride in Yamanaka’s accomplishment, it should celebrate all achievements around the world. And if journalists want to understand just how important it is, they should put a new development in an international perspective.