Guest post: A seismologist from Japan looks at the STAP cells mess

By Robert J. Geller

I’m a seismologist at the University of Tokyo, where I’ve been since 1984. I was the first tenured foreign faculty member in the history of our university. If you look at my publication list on the Researcher ID site you can see that my main research recent interests are modeling seismic wave propagation and analyzing observed seismic waveform data to determine the seismic velocity structure of the Earth’s interior. I also have a longstanding interest in science policy in Japan. After the 2011 Tohoku earthquake I wrote a commentary article in Nature criticizing the Japanese government’s earthquake prediction program. You can read my recent article on the issues involved in restarting Japan’s nuclear plants, and you can follow me on Twitter (@rjgeller), where I mostly tweet in Japanese. The STAP cells mess is having a big effect on the global stem cell research community, but is also impacting all scientists in Japan. Paul Knoepfler kindly invited me to guest-post here.

Like other non-specialists, the first time I heard of either STAP cells or Haruko Obokata was at the end of January, when her two papers were published in Nature to the accompaniment of a gale-force blast of publicity in the Japanese media orchestrated by Riken. Her press conference, where she was flanked by her co-author Teruhiko Wakayama, was featured on every network’s news broadcast. She was lionized by the media as the epitome of a “rikejo” (a woman in science fields), who decorated her lab in pink, and was featured not only on news programs but also on infotainment shows. The publicity emphasized her personality more than her research itself, treating her more like a pop star than a unit leader at Riken. Still this was a feel-good story—a young scientist who was reported to have made a major breakthrough—and she was invited to attend a meeting of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology Policy on Feb. 14.

As everyone now knows, reports of problems with the figures in the Nature papers began appearing on the internet in early February. A tweeter with the user name @JuuichiJigen played a major role in presenting clear and extensive lists of problems, posting mostly in Japanese. Problems were also reported on the pubpeer site. Obokata skipped the Prime Minister’s Science Council meeting on Feb. 14, and on Feb. 15 the Mainichi newspaper reported that Riken had opened an investigation into possible irregularities in the Obokata et al. papers. Nature is also investigating.

It’s March 13 in Tokyo as I type this, and as we all know the problems have snowballed, and now also include apparently serious problems related to Obokata’s 2011 Ph.D. thesis at Waseda University, which has launched its own investigation. Riken has scheduled a press conference (to be webcast) at 1400JST on March 14.

I’m an outsider to the stem cell field, but this mess impacts public trust and support for every field of science in Japan. The longer it’s allowed to drag on the worse the ultimate impact will be. So it’s in the interest of every scientist in Japan that Riken, Nature, Waseda, and other institutions fully and transparently identify the problems and take appropriate actions. Let me make a few observations.

Nature:  First, to take a random example, the Obokata et al. article refers to “pasture pipettes” rather than “Pasteur pipettes.” The existence of such an obvious error suggests that the nine authors, as well as the referees, editors, and copy editors were all, to put it bluntly, slackers. Some of the actions taken by the authors in apparently inappropriately editing and recycling figures might arguably have been uncatchable by the referees and editors, but surely this simple typo should have been caught by someone. Maybe the referees and editors who missed this should be put out to pasture.

More seriously, Nature has some heavy-duty explaining to do. An earlier version of the Obokata et al. paper was rejected, but then the problem-beset version published in late January was finally accepted. I’d like to see Nature, while protecting the identity of the referees, disclose (on their website) all of the editorial correspondence (redacted appropriately) and every version of the submitted papers, so we can all judge whether or not the decision by Nature to accept the papers was appropriate based on the information available to them at the time.

Nature Publishing Group not only publishes journals. Other subsidiaries provide editing and web/print publishing services, sell advertorial supplements in Nature’s journals, and so on. Riken is reported to be one of their customers. Without implying that the commercial side in any way intervened in the editorial side (something Nature has strongly denied in response to a question from a Japanese newspaper), the potential for possible conflict of interest here is obvious. Just as Nature asks authors to disclose their conflicts of interest (something Obokata et al. failed to do in the case of their patent application), Nature’s parent company should also disclose its own conflicts of interests more clearly.

Waseda: Two co-authors of the Nature article, Masayuki Yamato (Tokyo Women’s Medical University) and Charles A. Vacanti (Harvard Medical School) were also external examiners for Obokata’s Ph.D. thesis at Waseda University in 2011. It is hard to believe that neither they nor the two internal examiners failed to notice the complete absence of cited references in the introductory chapter to the thesis, which could and should have led to the discovery that it was plagiarized from the National Institutes of Health home page, and should have in turn led to an investigation that might well have uncovered some of the other major problems. In view of these problems it is hard to see how this thesis can, on reexamination, be judged as appropriate justification for award of the Ph.D. degree. One hopes that this is an isolated case rather than the tip of a giant iceberg, but probably every university in Japan, not just Waseda, should conduct a systematic investigation of all of their Ph.D. theses, taking appropriate actions in all cases of large-scale plagiarism or data manipulation. This is obviously something most university administrators would rather not face up to, and I personally hope that a large number of problems are not uncovered, but the health of the scientific enterprise demands integrity.

Riken: Riken obviously has big governance problems. These basically stem from the fact that while nominally being independent it is actually heavily controlled by government bureaucrats on secondment from the Ministry of Education and other ministries. (Nominally this is not the case.) The Japanese civil service is divided into “career” and “non-career” entrants. The former are fast-tracked from entrance, and are gradually winnowed out as they are rotated every 18 months or so. The bureaucrats who rise to the top do so by getting along with their superiors and not being tagged with failures. They don’t actually have to do something positive; in fact doing so would probably offend someone senior who would push them off the fast track. Their interests in resolving the STAP cell mess would best be served by throwing Obokata under the bus and nominally admonishing the other Riken-affiliated co-authors, thereby providing pseudo-closure. They could then just go on with business as usual, telling the public “nothing to see here; move along.” On the other hand, the interests of the scientific community in Japan, not to mention the interests of the public, would best be served by unearthing and correcting the various structural problems that exist.

Government policy decisions in Japan are made based on recommendations by advisory panels. This sounds good, but the problem is that the advisory committees are hand-picked by the government, and the academic members consist solely of researchers cynically called “go-yo gakusha,” who are selected because they will agree with whatever the government says. (In case you’re wondering, the government has never asked me to serve on one of these committees. That’s why even though I’m 62 now I still have time for research.) I’m afraid that until this system is changed, which seems unlikely to happen any time soon, the structural problems that led to the STAP cell mess won’t be corrected, and business as usual will continue.

© Robert J. Geller, 2014