Holding Institutions Responsible for Research Misconduct: the recent case of a death of stem cell scientist

Zubin MasterBy Zubin Master

Scientist Yoshiki Sasai, age 52, committed suicide and was found dead on August 5, 2014. Sasai was deputy director of the Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) at RIKEN in Kobe, Japan, and coauthor on two recently retracted Nature papers about a reportedly easier way to make induced pluripotent stem cells. The papers were retracted due to duplication and manipulation of images done by the main researcher and lead author on the two papers – Haruko Obokata. Although cleared of any direct involvement, Sasai was under immense pressure and heavily scrutinized by the media, public and peers. This involved speculation about Sasai’s alleged intentions to orchestrate a media frenzy, and for being overly ambitious and motivated to win future grants overlooking the integrity of the science.

According to colleagues at RIKEN, Sasai was receiving counseling since the scandal broke headlines and he was also hospitalized for about a month in March (1). He was ultimately found hanging in a stairwell of a neighboring building close to the CDB and beside him were three letters addressed to CDB management, his laboratory, and Obokata. On August 12, Kazuhiro Nakamura, the family lawyer explained the contents of Sasai’s suicide note left for the family. Sasai was “worn out by the unjust bashing in the mass media and the responsibility he felt towards RIKEN and his laboratory” (2). But unsubstantiated claims in the media were not the only source of stress for Sasai. The speculation in tabloids might have also influenced how RIKEN and other colleagues behaved towards Sasai. In June, a report released by an independent RIKEN reform committee criticized CDB leaders for hyping the science and did not interview Sasai about such accusations. Their final recommendation was to dismantle CDB. According to the family lawyer, this was a tremendous shock for Sasai (2).

In this blog, I want to discuss the responsibilities research institutions have over research integrity and misconduct. Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiments (3) and other social psychology research has taught us that ethical behavior is not only shaped by dispositional attribution (an internal moral character), but it is also influenced by many situational (environmental) features. Similarly, our understanding about the causes of research misconduct is shifting from the idea of a few “bad apples” to the realization that the immense pressure to publish and translate research findings, and poor institutional support are factors that influence research misconduct. This is not to excuse misbehavior by researchers; rather, it is about moral responsibility, and research institutions are also accountable in cases of research misconduct. While scholars on research integrity are aware of the responsibility of research institutions, the institutions themselves have taken few measures to promote research integrity and prevent misconduct; they remain virtually blameless in high profile cases of research misconduct (4). The tragic death of Dr. Yoshiki Sasai should cause us to consider the role of institutions. How well do research institutions handle investigations? Do they take measures to protect researchers and others involved in the case? How do institutions promote research integrity and prevent misconduct? I think the short answer to these questions is that institutions still do the minimum to promote the responsible conduct of research and likely react punitively to individual researchers by removing the supposed bad apples and then taking minimal corrective measures. This institutional myopic view of research misconduct needs to change, and institutions need to be held morally accountable along with scientists who commit misconduct.

The Case

There has been no shortage of news surrounding misconduct in stem cell research even beyond the STAP situation. I have given lectures to science trainees in stem cell research (5) and blogged about several relatively recent scandals (6; 7). The pattern of misconduct seen in stem cell research might be due to the heightened attention it receives in the media and interest by the public. Moreover, ways to detect misconduct are becoming relatively more widely used by journals and other scientists, and publishing in top-tier journals like Science and Nature certainly draws attention.

In January of this year, Haruko Obokata in the CDB, RIKEN reported that she was able to convert mouse cells to a pluripotent state simply by exposing cells to stress, the procedure called stimulus triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). Soon after its publication, allegations of plagiarism, and figure manipulation and duplication were reported. Additionally, other researchers were unable to reproduce the STAP experiments. In April, an investigative committee at RIKEN found Obokata had committed research misconduct. While she admitted to being sloppy, Obokata continued to defend the results. The investigative report also concluded that while Sasai was not directly involved in misconduct, he bore “heavy responsibility” (8). A reform committee, chaired by a University of Tokyo emeritus professor Teruo Kishi, faults Sasai and a former CDB researcher, now at another university, for accepting Obokata’s data without question or further examination (9). The reform committee found that inadequate oversight extended to the highest leadership of CDB due to the desire for a major breakthrough and the committee recommended that CDB be completely reformed.

It is evident that Yoshiki Sasai, a leader in the scientific community and at CDB, was under massive pressure. I will neither speculate on the toll this incident had on Sasai or whether the investigation was handled well and the recommendations sound. Instead, I want to shift focus to look more at the research environment scientists work in more generally and consider what research institutions do (or can do) to promote research integrity.

Shifting the Culture of Science.

The espoused norms of science we learn in the past seem incongruent with current practices today. The ideals of science – openly sharing materials/methods, being motivated by discovery and not personal gain, judging one’s own work and others rigorously through strict standards – are being replaced with secrecy, self-promotion, and fierce competition (10, 11, 12). Competition in science creates a pressure to publish, and perhaps more recently to translate and commercialize research (13, 14). A recent survey by New Scientist reported that of 111 stem cell scientists who responded, 56% felt stem cell research was put under more intense scrutiny than other areas of biomedical science, and of those that replied positively, 56% said that this affects their work (15). Moreover, almost 17% of the stem cell researchers reported that they felt pressure to submit a paper for publication they believed was incomplete or needed verification. Combining the pressure to produce results in a hyper competitive and a bleak job market creates a stressful environment for anyone. It remains empirically unclear however, whether such a competitive environment is a recipe for research misconduct. Given the culture of science today, what are institutions doing to create a healthier environment?

Globally, several research institutions promote research integrity but differ in their approach. Some have robust policies, training, and provide resources while I suspect many only have a suite of policies and a non-transparent mechanism to address allegations of misconduct. I believe research institutions can do several things to promote research integrity and help prevent misconduct.

For starters, institutions can raise awareness and help promote a culture of research integrity by educating trainees, faculty, and research administrators and staff. Education can provide scientists with the tools they need to deal with ethical issues in a constructive manner when they arise. Michael Kalichman explains that the primary goal of education should be to “foster a research culture in which conversations about the responsible conduct of research are expected and acceptable” (16). Efforts to restore and rehabilitate researchers found to engage in misbehavior is likely going to incorporate education as part of the program. Education about the responsible conduct of research needs to be more than a minimum requirement scientists have to undertake and institutions are obligated to offer.

In addition to fostering a culture of integrity, some scholars advocate that research institutions can perform random or for-cause (when misconduct is suspected) data audits (17). However, it seems scientists have little appetite for such audits because they fear it would inhibit scientific freedom, and be burdensome and costly. While there is virtually no evidence to demonstrate whether such a policy decreases research misbehavior within an institution, it does not have to be a taxing effort on scientists or research administration (17).

Institutions should further make transparent a mechanism of how allegations should be handled, but also to provide resources like an ombudsperson as trusted broker for researchers to confidentially discuss potential problems amicably prior to raising a formal allegation requiring investigation. And if a formal investigation is needed, institutions must make serious efforts to ensure there are no reprisals against the complainant, witnesses, investigators, or the accused. In cases where scientists are under tremendous duress during an investigation, appropriate accommodations for researchers should be made.

UC San Diego is one example of an institution that has made significant efforts to promote the responsible conduct of research by having several research ethics policies, a hotline to report research fraud, a transparent mechanism to address potential allegations, and providing courses, seminars and resources to faculty and students (18). The tools are available – university and college administrators need to seek them out and implement them at their respective institutions.

Empirical research on institutional integrity climates is beginning to be performed (19). While journals, funding agencies, integrity scholars, scientific societies and other players can all do their part to promote a culture of research integrity, research institutes are well poised to promote integrity not only within their organization, but also to the larger institution of science. Research institutions should do more than simply remove the “bad apples” as they too bear some moral responsibility over research misconduct.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Paul Knoepfler, Ms. Lisa Willemse, and Ms. Tina Muratovic for helpful feedback.

This piece was also co-posted at the AMC blog and on the Signals blog.

Guest Post was written by Dr. Zubin Master, Assistant Professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute, Albany Medical College and Research Associate at the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute.

Web Links

1. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/05/national/embattled-stap-study-co-author-dies-after-apparent-suicide-bid/#.VADIBE10ymQ

2. http://www.nature.com/news/stem-cell-pioneer-blamed-media-bashing-in-suicide-note-1.15715?WT.ec_id=NEWS-20140819

3. http://www.prisonexp.org/

4. http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/research-misconduct-policy-biomedicine

5. http://ori.hhs.gov/images/ddblock/march_vol22_no2.pdf

6. http://www.signalsblog.ca/rush-to-publish-and-the-repercussions-of-carelessness-in-science/

7. http://www.amc.edu/BioethicsBlog/post.cfm/not-another-stem-cell-scam-alleged-fabrication-false-affiliation-plagiarism-and-poor-publication-ethics-all-in-a-single-shot

8. http://www.nature.com/news/research-integrity-cell-induced-stress-1.15507

9. http://news.sciencemag.org/asiapacific/2014/06/japanese-stem-cell-debacle-could-bring-down-center

10. http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=194592

11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12712166

12. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.1525/jer.2007.2.4.3?uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21104081253391

13. http://genomemedicine.com/content/1/2/22

14. http://genomemedicine.com/content/4/2/17

15. http://www.newscientist.com/data/doc/article/dn25281/stemcellsurveypdf1.pdf

16. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24073608

17. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08989621.2013.822259?journalCode=gacr20#preview

18. http://blink.ucsd.edu/research/policies-compliance-ethics/responsible-conduct.html

19. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11948-012-9409-0

2 thoughts on “Holding Institutions Responsible for Research Misconduct: the recent case of a death of stem cell scientist


  1. Holding Journals Responsible for Research Hype: the recent case of a death of stem cell scientist
    The tragic death of Yoshiki Sasai has caused some people to re-think the responsibility of senior scientists and even respectful organizations. However, what about the responsibility of scientific journals?
    From the very beginning I have doubted the validity of the amazing claims on STAP cells and considered it as another hype in Nature. I even wrote to Nature to ask for early retraction of these problematic papers. However, I am surprised that it actually took Nature that long time to retract these flawed and fraud papers even after so many attempts had failed to replicate a “simple” method. More amazingly Nature even stated in its retraction notice that “We at Nature have examined the reports about the two papers from our referees and our own editorial records. Before publishing, we had checked that the results had been independently replicated in the laboratories of the co-authors” (See http://www.nature.com/news/stap-retracted-1.15488 ). Co-author Charles Vacanti, the US correspondence author in Harvard University, also made such assertion that “there has been no information that cast doubt on the existence of the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cell phenomenon itself” (see http://news.sciencemag.org/asiapacific/2014/07/nature-retracts-controversial-stem-cell-papers ). Now even the very Japanese group cannot repeat its “success” (see http://news.sciencemag.org/asiapacific/2014/08/japan-official-effort-replicate-stap-stem-cells-comes-empty
    ). What should Nature and Vacanti say again?
    I strongly appeal that Nature open its “stringent” peer review on STAP cells so that we can see how a shaky discovery can even be published in high-profile in a so-called “top” journal.
    I am sure that, once Nature opens its peer-review files on the STAP cell papers, the major players responsible for the STAP hype will be easy to identify. I guess, if it is not Nature’s blind trust on some big names then the STAP cells papers wouldn’t even be published.


  2. The institutions that employ scientists do indeed have a (heavy) responsibility, which by and large they duck. It is a difficult area, because the freedom required for research could be an awkward bedfellow for institutional responsibility. Perhaps we should take inspiration from seafarers. The captain is the last to leave the ship, and any other behaviour can result in prosecution. So maybe the buck for misconduct should not rest with the graduate student or postdoc doing the research (where it often stops) or the PI leading the research team (if it hasn’t stopped with the underlings it always stops here), but with the Dean and President. Leadership should mean responsibility and reaping the benefits of research through overheads and institutional kudos must come with responsibility.

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