RIKEN Report Is Virtual Acid Bath of Criticism for Obokata: What’s Next?

Haruko ObokataRIKEN Institute in Japan has formally announced the complete findings of its investigation into the STAP cell research and Nature papers.

RIKEN almost entirely blamed Dr. Haruko Obokata for the STAP mess in this report and they didn’t mince words. The RIKEN report alleged that Obokata had engaged in two instances of “research misconduct” as discussed by Retraction Watch.

Notably, the report addressed only six specific potential problematic issues when there are many more key areas of concern that it did not tackle. You know something’s bad when “only six “problems is a statement that makes sense as six problems is certainly a lot one would think.

More bad news came from MarketWatch quoting the RIKEN report and press conference:

  • Obokata “”acted in a manner that can by no means be permitted” when she manipulated “the image data of two different gels and using data from two different experiments.”
  • “Given the poor quality of her laboratory notes it has become clearly evident that it will be extremely difficult for anyone else to accurately trace or understand her experiments,”

The AP said of the investigation’s findings “They said researcher Haruko Obokata, the lead author of the paper in Nature, had manipulated or falsified images of DNA fragments used in the research.” and they quoted Shunsuke Ishii, the head of the committee set up to investigate allegations, “The manipulation was used to improve the appearance of the results”.

Obokata will appeal.

Obokata’s Japanese collaborators and mentors were not entirely spared in the RIKEN report either according to the same AP article:

“The scientists said three other co-authors of the papers had not falsified the data but were still “gravely responsible” for failing to fully verify the research findings. The discrepancies in the data showed up as anomalous lines in an image of DNA fragments.”

It is unclear at this time how this Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as Obokata’s American mentor and senior author on the Nature STAP article, Dr. Charles Vacanti, will handle this situation and the new developments. I just emailed him asking if he has a comment.

What comes next?

In addition to a formal appeal, Obokata may well return fire via litigation against RIKEN as MarketWatch said “Emails to Dr. Obokata were returned by a lawyer who said he was representing Dr. Obokata.”

What about Nature? 

It won’t comment at this time, but really does it have any choice left but to eventually editorially retract the papers?

There will never be unanimous author consent for retraction and I believe that Nature cannot accept a mere correction or let the papers stand as is with RIKEN indicating that misconduct went into them. So what other choice is left?

35 thoughts on “RIKEN Report Is Virtual Acid Bath of Criticism for Obokata: What’s Next?


  1. I understand ‘independent’ verification of the STAP experiment is being undertaken by RIKEN, so whilst various parties credibility attaching to the original STAP paper is wounded (maybe mortally in some cases) the STAP issue isn’t completely dead until this is issued. However, it would be optimistic to say that the likely outcome of that independent experiment will be positive, given the commentary we have had on Obokata’s lab notes.(Do we hear the scrabbling of researches worldwide to make their lab notes coherent …:-) )


  2. according to Dr. Lee:
    acid bath most likely is false condition. but mechanical trituration ?

    ” Kenneth Ka-Ho Lee · The Chinese University of Hong Kong
    Reviewer
    Dear All,

    This not an April Fool trick!. The negative control came up “positive” while the acid bath came up “negative”. Looks like mechanical trituration could induce STAP cells!?!?!? However, this the first time we did this experiment and will require several more rounds to validate.

    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/259984904_Stimulus-triggered_fate_conversion_of_somatic_cells_into_pluripotency/reviews/103


    • Something does not make sense. If the negative control comes from the Vacanti protocol, how come the people who did the experiment originially did not observe the same phenomena? (especially given that Vacanti would even grasp straw to confirm his pet theory)


      • In my opinion, it may make sense.
        The mice in Obokata’s study are different from Prof Lee’s study.

        There is a possibility that Obokata’s mice can be induced by acid bath+trituration, while Prof Lee’s mice can be induced by trituration only, to express the pluripotency markers.


    • Thanks for the heads up on this. Comment I just posted on ResearchGate on this:
      Let’s see how this develops, but I remain skeptical that this is a specific induced pluripotency-related event related to trituration and that what you are seeing here is STAP cells. I hope I’m wrong and it is something real on the STAP front, but I doubt it. Thanks again, Ken, for all the hard work that your lab is doing!
      Paul


      • thanks for your reply.

        at least, Dr. Lee’s ‘protocols’ can be easily repeated and are clear (vs the original protocols ).
        hope more groups are interested and to see if the original results are (fully or partly) true or fake.
        though it’s not a positive example that other groups (not authors) have to spend extra time and effort trying to prove/verify the result.


  3. In the published Vacanti protocol I couldn’t see any mention of controls, just an outline of their process that lead to the STAP stem cells.

    Is it possible that the acid bath was an unnecessary part of the process all along? Would be interesting to know what controls the Vacanti lab underwent.

    Obviously there is such a negative vibe about STAP stem cells that it will take more rounds of experiment for the expression of the relevant chemical signals to be proven. Then it would seem that if even if that is established then pluripotency will need to be proved, as the next stage, beyond doubt.


  4. Accepting for purposes of discussion Riken’s verdict that several instances of misconduct occurred, and taking the “Contributions” section of the Obokata et al. paper http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v505/n7485/full/nature12968.html at face value:

    “H.O. and Y.S. wrote the manuscript. H.O., T.W. and Y.S. performed experiments, and K.K. assisted with H.O.’s transplantation experiments. H.O., T.W., Y.S., H.N. and C.A.V. designed the project. M.P.V. and M.Y. helped with the design and evaluation of the project.”

    …it seems difficult for me, as an outsider to this field, to accept to accept Riken’s conclusion that the only person guilty of misconduct is Dr. Obokata. How do people in this field view this question?


    • Agree with you on this. Seems Obokata’s thrown under the bus. Amazing how the other Corresponding authors (bar Wakayama) remain detached! (they had no problem to bask in the limelight when the papers were out….)
      Not unusual in the (scientific) world….


  5. As I’m a Japanese taxpayer, it’s a pity that so-called Obokata’s incident happened.
    Because I had had a bad opinion of such RIKEN as a real money pit before this incident happened, I hope that RIKEN is broken up on this occasion, so it will lead to tax saving. The reason I’m unable to accept RIKEN is that such a state-backed institution as RIKEN has outlived its usefulness, I reckon, and that RIKEN doesn’t seem to have a sense of crisis even about the incident. In my view, the investigation by RIKEN was so lenient with Obokata and her colleagues involved in the incident that the fact was not in the least uncovered, and more importantly it’s silly of RIKEN not to have locked those involved in the incident out at the first stage of the investigation.
    Be that as it may, most Japanese, I reckon, take it for granted that RIKEN should be done away with because it looks like a waste of tax; in addition, most Japanese couldn’t care less the great role RIKEN played before, and consequently there is no obstacle but resistance of the researchers of RIKEN to overcome. The researchers of RIKEN would have a hard time making a living, but they will obtain proper professions should they have outstanding gifts for studies. In general, while the people are keeping their heads above water, the researchers of RIKEN are amusing themselves with what they call studies. It’s only natural that such a contrast bring the people to react against RIKEN, and as a matter of fact, RIKEN is with its back to the wall now.
    In conclusion, I’ve heard of the opinion that this incident happened in CDB (Center for Developmental Biology) of RIKEN, and so the head office of RIKEN had nothing to do with it. If that is the case, the head of office must have investigated Obokata and so on all the more strictly. To put it bluntly, the head office was too set in its ways to investigate the incident properly, and in hindsight, it was too late to restore the lost trust. According to some media, the government seemed to make plans to invest no less than one hundred billion yen in that study, and the nation would have almost sacrificed such a huge budget. (XXXX edited for content)


    • This is a very silly and shortsighted comment from someone who obviously has no awareness about the importance of research (not only at RIKEN but also in general).
      PI, Researchers and Tech staff at RIKEN are able to produce outstanding research every year: may I recommend you to give a quick and easy look on Pubmed. Have you heard of the FANTOM project, just to name one? My guess is “no”.
      According to you we should kill the entire fruitful tree because of a rotten apple. Congrats, very good strategy, and exactly what Japan economy needs right now: shut down his main research institute.
      Besides, taxes in Japan are already low compared to other modern, civilized countries…and how much closing RIKEN would reduce them? 0.something %?. Meh.


      • It should be too late to leave my response to this comment, but I won’t stand for the comment.
        Are you kidding? Whether a tax is heavy or not doesn’t matter. I mean, the government should not budget for RIKEN because the operation of RIKEN, not least the aspect of personnel affairs is allegedly so opaque, which tends toward a hotbed of injustice. (XXXX edited for content) RIKEN presumably has no ability to purify itself.
        Last but not least, according to several media, she seems to go to court. I hope she exposes the fact related to this incident, including the alleged justices of RIKEN.


    • You are commenting on the general problem of life science research in Japan. The public will think lots of taxpayer money will go to salary and welfare of the researchers. There are stories on just how well Obokata is being paid at the age of 30. The truth is that much of the taxpayer money are being put into purchase of pointlessly expensive equipments and the number of “unit leaders” or “team leaders” (principal investigators equivalent to assistant/associate to full professors) is small and you can easily count them. This is sad because the real research workforce are students who are not paid and post-docs who are paid at the salary level of a college graduate at an ordinary company. People assume the post-docs will be paid well since they have a PhD and have been to foreign countries for research for years and their age is reaching around 40’s. At the lab, you will be essentially one-man with your own project and the principal investigator who hires you seldom gives you the real help. In the meanwhile, you are supposed to work usually until 11pm and you are supposed to work on Saturdays and Sundays. It is a terrible life that lasts sometimes more than 10 years. I certainly agree that the taxpayer’s money should be used in the right way. But just giving a huge budget cut won’t help Japanese science because the old guys who have permanent positions will continue to buy expensive stuffs while there is no manpower to use the machines smartly. It is the time we evaluate the scientific practice in Japan and realize that we have been relying on luck so far: some smart guy will sometimes pop up and stay and invent something. But do we have an environment to foster those talents? This is an important question to ask because otherwise those talents will, as you said, found other places to research and that place will not be Japan. I guess the following site explains it better than I did here in Japanese.

      http://masahirono.seesaa.net/article/393524181.html


      • I cannot in the least sympathize with postdoctoral people in Japan because of going their own way out of choice, and there are lots of the postdoctoral out there, so they should be weeded out; that is, as you sow, so shall you reap.
        We’ll be obliged to foster only a few competent survivals.


        • That’s fine, but you can’t “weed out” incompetency or “foster a few competent” survivors without supporting the research in the first place; it is only possible to know what is effective and successful in hindsight. If anything, you should be arguing for better overall training for graduate and postdoctoral researchers to improve the overall quality of the research and help to create better leaders. Furthermore, your comment that only effective researchers should be supported contrasts with your original comment, which suggested that all RIKEN researchers are incompetent, all research at RIKEN is useless, and that that none should be supported, which even you now seem to acknowledge as baseless. Also, as a Japanese taxpayer, what would you rather be spending your tax money on? Supporting scientific research creates jobs and helps the economy, although admittedly, Japan is still weak when it comes to commercializing technology developed in academic institutions. Still, scientific innovation is one of the greatest potential national assets in Japan (and in the US), and I believe that strong and continued support of scientific research is required from the government and the public if Japan is to remain a world power. That is why the erosion of public confidence in science in Japan caused by the STAP debacle, as exemplified by your comments, is so regrettable, and emerging attitudes that scientific research is not necessary or should not be supported may end up damaging Japan’s future prospects.


  6. Why isn’t Harvard conducting an investigation? Wasn’t the corresponding author from Harvard? I thought corresponding authors bear primary responsibility for a paper and is the foundation for how science works.


    • Perhaps they are investigating or perhaps not. Even if they are investigating, from what I hear their privacy policies may preclude any public disclosure of what they conclude and the investigation could take many months or even longer.


  7. Hi guys,

    Since I tuned in to the live web cast, I’ve decided to post my summary once more. In short, there was not much information about the status of STAP cells. Let me start with STAP cells first and then misc stuff later. To be clear, I’m not in bio-science.

    (1) RIKEN’s viewpoint and plan for STAP cells

    I was a bit surprised but Dr Takeichi, CBD head, seemed positive about Dr Niwa’s proposed tests consisting two parts: OCT 3/4 and chimeric mouse parts (other parts are low priority according to Dr Niwa). To me, Dr Takeichi still believes that OCT 3/4 part is real, opposed to the possible observation bias coupled to auto-fluorescence discussed by other experts.
    Dr Kawai said that it’s RIKEN’s responsibility to determine if STAP cells have ever existed. So RIKEN believes the budget (roughly $150k) and effort (upto 1 year) would be well justified. I guess it’s true that only RIKEN will invest enough money and manpower on this in current situation.

    (2) Dr Obokata on Nature paper retraction

    Dr Obokata openly disagreed with RIKEN on the final report (through her representatives). She stated that all of her misconducts done not intentionally, and thus she with other co-authors submitted updated version of papers to Nature on March 9. This information sounds like contradicting to what Dr Takeichi said in the interim report on March 14. He claimed that Dr Obokata agreed to retract Nature papers at the time he suggested to do so. However, it doesn’t matter as Dr Vacanti is against the retraction anyway.

    I think these are only STAP cells related information given out of two long press conferences. Now I put some misc stuff which you can safely skip.

    (a) So what will happen to named responsible people?

    RIKEN allows accused people to appeal in ten days. If they appeal, then RIKEN normally re-summon the investigation committee*. The committee will decide if re-investigation is needed or reject the appeal in 60 days. 
    RIKEN will form a diciprinaly committee to decide what kind of punitive measures is appropriate. Dr Obokata already stated she would appeal before the ten days deadline. Other named responsible people told nothing to the press as of this writing (or just I’m unaware of).

    (b) Who will be ‘punished’?

    RIKEN strangely refused to name who will be subject to punitive measures. The investigation committee named only Dr Obokata, Sasai, Niwa, and Wakayama. RIKEN actually admitted organizational responsibility to what happened in the latter part of the press conference, but did not name anyone for that.
    Anyway there is one odd on the list, Dr Wakayama, who is no longer hired by RIKEN. RIKEN has a right to ask people committed misconducts for reimbursement of research money. I guess RIKEN won’t do that to Dr Wakayama since the worst parts done by Dr Obokata alone (according to the final report).

    Now my thoughts on RIKEN.

    (i) Isn’t RIKEN’s investigation incomplete?

    RIKEN was criticised by some of news reporters in the press conference about how the investigation was conducted and why they focussed on the six issues. Their excuse was that they wanted to balance promptness and thoroughness. Initially they didn’t plan to have an interim report but they decided to give it and quickly wrapped up the final report. The objectives of investigation committee was not to determine if STAP cells exist, but rather simply if any RIKEN employee committed any scientific misconduct. To this, I’m dare to say they did well in terms of promptness.

    (ii) What’s RIKEN’s problem?

    It seems RIKEN has a good set of rules and standards, but those are not practiced by RIKEN employees widely and there is no check to enforce them (like traffic rules without police officers on road).
    Dr Obokata wrote only two lab notes in three years. These notes were not checked by co-authors, and difficult to follow by others. According to Dr Kawai, important lab notes should be maintained by RIKEN but it’s not the case for Dr Obokata for some reasons.
    RIKEN did not give Dr Obokata a desktop PC in her lab (unlike most of other team leaders). So she kept everything on her personal laptop computer. This made investigation quite difficult (RIKEN has no legal right to take it away from her). As a matter of fact, RIKEN gave Dr Obokata $150k budget. So money was not the issue there.
    RIKEN apparently have a quality control problem…

    (iii) RIKEN’s responsibility

    First of all, I was extremely uncomfortable to hear RIKEN managers in the interim report on Mar 14. Almost none of them admitted their problems (signified by Dr Kawai) but just bowed their heads down for something bad happened. Being responsible is not to apologize through camera but to perform honest checks on existing system and make necessary changes to prevent similar bad things from happening in the future.
    This time, they focussed a lot more on checks and possible improvements (though ambiguous). Maybe they’re just saying, but I think it’s a big step forward for RIKEN to admit their problems and talk about possible changes (well, I’m writing this sadly enough).

    (iv) Scientific truth and quality of papers

    I completely disagree with Dr Kawai saying no check needed on papers to ensure scientists’ freedom on research (said on Mar 14 and repeated similar concern on Apr 1). Actually I think she was confused about scientific truth vs quality of paper.
    Somehow all news media think in a way, telling bad papers from good ones is easy. Here ‘bad’ papers mean ones intentionally written based on erroneous facts (such as data alternation, fabrication, etc). Well, maybe some of you disagree with me on this, but let’s recall some of ‘recent’ nightmares in academia like Schon scandal [1] and Sokal affair [2]. Even if papers are flaudant, it’s not easy at all to tell that immediately by just reading them**.
    So I don’t blame RIKEN just because of STAP cells don’t exist (to the extent, initially advertised, namely easy to create and yet pluri-potent). What they should consider is to ensure the quality of papers. For example, their papers contain typo, copied sentences without proper citation, an image never referred from main text, digitally altered images, and so forth. If they are pride of (or wish to be) one of ‘prestigious’ international research labs, it doesn’t hurt to designate one of RIKEN co-authors to do those checks without undermining scientific freedom on research.
    Dr Kawai argued that that’s Nature’s responsibility, but really? What RIKEN should have learnt from this STAP mess includes that sometimes a ‘prestigious’ scientific journal such as Nature doesn’t carefully read submitted papers as it happened in Sokal affair. It’s needless to say that a publisher and peer reviewers do not write a decent article for RIKEN but the primary authors must do.

    By the way this is not the first time, the bright history of RIKEN tinted. Similar or even worse data fabrication happened about ten years ago. Now I wonder, what did RIKEN learn from that?*** And from the bottom of my heart, I hope we will not say the same thing after ten years from now.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sch%C3%B6n_scandal
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair
    * correction: I wrote previously as if they’re non-RIKEN people, but it’s almost all RIKEN people.
    ** note: Of course I admit that this could be a different case. As the chair of investigation committee Dr Ishii lamented, this whole mess could be avoided if any of RIKEN co-authors have checked Dr Obokata’s lab notes and/or data prepared by her more carefully.
    *** note: There was a lawsuit afterward and RIKEN lost the case. This is one of reasons RIKEN carefully choose words to accused RIKEN employees who could sue RIKEN for some mis-treatment.


  8. In the light of the current results of the Hong Kong University reproduction of the Vacanti protocol it was interesting to me to read the discussion element of the original Nature paper submitted by the RIKEN team. I detail an extract:

    ‘A remaining question is whether cellular reprogramming is initiated specifically by the low-pH treatment or also by some other types of sublethal stress such as physical damage, plasma membrane perforation, osmotic pressure shock, growth-factor deprivation, heat shock or high Ca2+ exposure. At least some of these stressors, particularly physical damage by rigorous trituration and membrane perforation by streptolysin O, induced the generation of Oct4-GFP+ cells from CD45+ cells (Extended Data Fig. 9a; see Methods). These findings raise the possibility that certain common regulatory modules, lying downstream of these distantly related sublethal stresses, act as a key for releasing somatic cells from the tightly locked epigenetic state of differentiation, leading to a global change in epigenetic regulation. In other words, unknown cellular functions, activated by sublethal stimuli, may set somatic cells free from their current commitment to recover the naive cell state’


  9. There’s another issue Riken’s report failed to sufficiently address. Nature’s statement on responsibilities of authors http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/authorship.html says:

    “Responsibilities of senior team members on multi-group collaborations:
    The editors at the Nature journals assume that at least one member of each collaboration, usually the most senior member of each submitting group or team, has accepted responsibility for the contributions to the manuscript from that team. This responsibility includes, but is not limited to: (1) ensuring that original data upon which the submission is based is preserved and retrievable for reanalysis; (2) approving data presentation as representative of the original data; and (3) foreseeing and minimizing obstacles to the sharing of data, materials, algorithms or reagents described in the work.”

    The senior member of the Riken group was Dr. Sasai, the deputy director of the Riken CDB. According to Nature’s policy, he (unless this responsibility was delegated to Dr. Niwa or Dr. Wakayama) was responsible for the above three points. But as we learned yesterday at Riken’s presser: (1) Dr. Obokata kept scant notebooks and data are stored on her private PC which she refused to allow Riken’s investigators to access, so it seems clear the senior Riken team member failed to conduct the pre-submission due diligence required by Nature’s policy (if he had, he would have had copies of all the data); (2) Some of the figures in the paper were altered or had no connection to the lab work, and this should have been caught by the required pre-submission due diligence by the senior Riken team member; (3) there seem to be major obstacles to free post-publication sharing of data and methods, which could have been alleviated by appropriate efforts by the senior Riken team member.

    So it appears, unless I’m missing something, that the senior member of the Riken team did not fulfill the duties required, under Nature’s policies, to be fulfilled by the senior team member at each institution. It’s surprising that the Riken investigation failed to make this point clearly (they did, generally speaking, criticize the failure of the senior team members to carry out sufficient supervision), and also that the media didn’t focus on the above three points of responsibility of the Riken senior author specified by Nature’s policy.


    • Dr. Geller, I want to thank you very much for providing the links for the press conferences. I watched both and was amused at points, although they were rather repetitive and in the end really did not give much concrete information.

      Regarding your comment, I would like to note that although it is obvious that Sasai was the de facto senior author from RIKEN CDB, I think that it is not so clear that Sasai was the de jure senior author from RIKEN.

      First, Obokata and Vacanti are the co-corresponding authors (not Sasai).

      Second, the primary affiliation given for Obokata is the lab of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine at BWH, which is the same affiliation given for Vacanti. The RIKEN CDB affiliations also given for Obokata are the lab for cellular reprogramming and lab for genomic reprogramming; in contrast, the RIKEN CDB affiliation given for Sasai is the lab for organogenesis and neurogenesis. Thus it could be argued, at least on the basis of author affiliations, that Sasai was collaborating with Obokata within the same institute but that they were not in the same group/team, and that she had responsibility in this project because the paper was submitted from her lab.

      Obokata was the senior member of the group/team of the lab for cellular reprogramming of RIKEN CDB. Vacanti was the senior member of the lab of tissue engineering and regenerative medicine at BWH. Together, they are the two co-corresponding authors and the PIs of their respective groups, and it thus seems to me that according to the Nature authorship policy you cited that the ultimate responsibility for the manuscript should fall to them.

      Of course, it is interesting that even though RIKEN very explicitly called this a collaborative research effort in their press conference, they did not at all mention the BWH group. I was also amused that the Japanese media also completely avoided asking questions about this, even though BWH was the primary affiliation for both corresponding authors on the paper.


      • To be clear, Drs. Obokata and Vacanti are the corresponding “senior” authors on the STAP Nature article, while Drs. Obokata, Wakayama, and Sasai (but not Vacanti) are corresponding authors on the Nature letter on STAP.


        • Yes, I was referring to the Nature article, which introduced the actual STAP phenomenon, and which Dr. Noyori was talking about retracting at the press conference, and not the Nature letter, which focused the “totipotency” of STAP cells, i.e., their generation of placental tissue. Thank you for clarifying!


        • To be clear, Nature http://www.nature.com/authors/policies/authorship.html is not talking about the responsibility of the corresponding author of the paper. They are specifically discussing multi-group collaborations, and are talking about the responsibility of the senior member of each of the collaborating groups. (May I respectfully ask you both to read the Nature page again.)

          The senior member of the Riken group was Dr. Sasai. As such he (or some other clearly designateed senior member of the Riken team) is expected to take responsibility for (1) data recording, (2) verifying figures, etc., against raw data, (3) making data/methods public, for the Riken group’s part of the collaborative project.


          • Bob, I see what you mean from the Nature verbiage.

            It all depends on what you define “senior” or “most senior” as. That is not defined by Nature. Would a younger full professor be considered more senior than an older, associate professor? Is a younger department Chair more senior than an older full professor on the same paper? It’s not so simple.

            I see that Nature has indeed divided up responsibilities in such a way that “senior” and “corresponding” authors may well be distinct, and they kind of minimize the responsibilities of the corresponding author. I find this very notable because it differs from my sense after 20+ years in biomedical sciences that the corresponding author(s) is/are generally considered ultimately the most responsible for the whole manuscript. I’d be curious of other takes on this. Of course Nature publishes all kinds of science, not just bio stuff, so maybe that’s a factor here too.


            • i don’t want to get legalistic here, but everyone agrees that Dr. Obokata was relatively inexperienced to be a PI, and surely, quite aside from Nature’s rules, it would have been just common sense to keep a closer eye on the details of her work than would ordinarily be the case for a colleague who is a PI. As the CDB deputy director it seems reasonable that Dr. Sasai should either have done this himself or clearly designated one of his subordinates (Dr. Wakayama or Dr. Niwa?) to do this. Had a senior colleague kept a closer eye on this project, many if not all of the problems could, would, and should have been discovered before submission of the paper to Nature.


              • Dr. Geller,

                I completely agree with your comment that someone with more experience should have been supervising her, based on what transpired. However, that issue and the responsibilities of senior authors laid out by Nature are completely separate.

                The fact is that regardless of her inexperience, she was an independent PI would had been given her own lab and funding. Based on the policies of Nature that you mentioned, that clearly makes her ultimately responsible for the contributions of her lab/group, i.e., the lab of cellular reprogramming. If in fact she was not sufficiently experienced to fulfill that role or required so much supervision that she was not capable of independent research even though she was designated as a PI, then perhaps she should never have been made a PI or been given an independent lab, and perhaps RIKEN bears responsibility for that. Again, though, that is a completely different question from asking who bears responsibility for the fraudulent contributions to the paper from the perspective of the journal. The assumption of the journal (and probably that of RIKEN before all of this happened) is that independent PIs who lead a group are indeed independent and thus responsible for the contributions of their own group.


            • Dr. Knoepfler, this is a very interesting point. The wording from Nature is indeed indistinct. As you noted, it appears to deflect overall responsibility from the corresponding author(s) by indicating that each group is independently responsible for its own contribution, and that the responsibility in each group “usually” falls to the more senior member of the group, although responsibility is simply assumed for “at least one member.” This “usually” and “at least one member” suggest to me that even within a team, the PI could still deflect responsibility to a postdoc or grad student (as so often seems to occur). Even the wording of “the editors at Nature assume that…has accepted responsibility” is unclear and seems to be more of a disclaimer for Nature (i.e., “we absolve ourselves of any responsibility for confirming the validity of the work”) rather than an actual policy for authors.


          • Dr. Geller, thanks for your reply.

            My point was that by the definition of Nature, Obokata and Sasai were in different groups/teams (different affiliations), and that Obokata (not Sasai) was the senior member of the laboratory for cellular reprogramming, from which the identified problems with data have arisen. Therefore, she bears ultimate responsibility for those issues.

            In particular, the text you have cited above states “at least one member of each collaboration, usually the most senior member of each submitting group or team, has accepted responsibility for the contributions to the manuscript from that team.” Please carefully note the words “contributions to the manuscript from that team.” The contributions that have been found to be fraudulent were from the team of Obokata, i.e., the lab for cellular reprogramming, and not the team of Sasai, i.e., the lab for organogenesis and neurogenesis. The only way that Sasai would bear responsibility, by the definition of Nature, would be if the data in question were contributed by the lab for organogenesis and neurogenesis, which they were not, or if the inaccuracies in the manuscript preparation were in the parts contributed by the lab for organogenesis and neurogenesis, which also does not appear to be the case based on RIKEN’s investigation.

            The overall institutional affiliation (i.e., RIKEN CDB) is not the same as the group/team affiliations within the institution, which is what Nature is getting at for responsibility in the text you have cited above. Suggesting that Nature is referring to overall institutional affiliations and not lab affiliations is like saying that if an associate professor and a full professor with independent labs from two different departments of the same institution collaborated on the associate professor’s project in which the paper was submitted from the associate professor’s lab, the full professor in the other department would somehow have overall responsibility for the entire manuscript because he has a higher rank. This is incorrect.

            The fact is that Obokata was the senior member of the lab for cellular reprogramming, which was apparently the group/team that contributed the problematic data and that appears to have contributed the parts of the manuscript in which “mistakes” were found.

            It is important to remember that at RIKEN, Obokata is not a postdoc working under someone else; she is an independent PI with her own lab and should be treated as such.

            Of course, all authors bear responsibility for the content of a manuscript, and we do not know what went on behind the scenes at RIKEN CDB or what the real dynamics between the labs or people involved were like. However, based on the information we have and based on the policies of Nature that you cited, it is incorrect to say that Sasai bears a greater responsibility than Obokota; the reverse appears to be true.


            • Well, I suppose there may be room for more than one interpretation of Nature’s rules: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v450/n7166/full/450001a.html

              But my interpretation of “multi-group collaborations” is not multiple groups in the same institution, but multi-institution. So in my opinion, Nature’s rules call for the senior person in the collaboration at Riken CDB (or his designee) to be responsible for checking the integrity of the contribution by all the people at Riken CDB. Frankly it never occurred to me to read the Nature rules as saying Drs. Obokata, Niwa, and Sasai were each responsible for checking the integrity of their own contribution, but that no one was responsible for checking the overall integrity of the contribution by all the Riken CDB authors.

              But if you as well as perhaps others think the “each author checks only his/her own contribution, and no one is responsible for checking the whole Riken CDB contribution” interpretation is viable, perhaps Nature should clarify their wording. Anyway, I’ll stop here and leave the last word on this to you or others.


              • Dr. Geller, thank you for your response. Your perspective totally makes sense to me, but I do believe that Nature is referring to the level of independent research teams/labs and not to overall institutions or to individual authors. Based on the wording, I think that the threshold is the point at which someone is responsible for the work of a team, i.e., the point at which someone is a PI of a group that makes a contribution to the paper. I totally agree with you that if PIs are only responsible for verifying the contribution of their own group, then someone should be responsible for verifying all of the contributions together and making sure that the pieces of the puzzle fit together. In my academic career, I was taught that such a role is fulfilled by the corresponding author, although as you and Dr. Knoepfler mentioned, the wording of the Nature policies do not seem to give much guidance in this regard. I agree with you that the wording (and perhaps policies in general) should be clarified.


  10. Interesting report in Japanese (with video clip, also in Japanese) on NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster: http://www3.nhk.or.jp/news/html/20140402/k10013449751000.html

    At Riken’s presser on March 14 they said the Riken authors including Dr. Obokata had agree to ask Nature for a retraction. But Dr. Obokata’s lawyer told NHK on April 2 that at no point had she ever agreed to a retraction (although he said she might have been a bit unclear in what she told Riken about this due to being under stress).

    She is planning to file an appeal against Riken’s finding of misconduct within the mandatory ten day period, and may also hold her own presser.

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