Yoshiki Sasai and the deadly consequences of science misconduct witchhunts

People who know me or read my blog will know that, in 1987, my father, a scientist at the NIH, killed himself after a member of his lab committed scientific fraud and he got caught up in the investigation. So I found the news this morning that Yoshiki Sasai, a Japanese stem cell scientist, committed suicide in the wake of the STAP controversy disturbing.

I don’t know all of the details, but the parallels between the two cases are haunting. As was the case with my father, it does not seem like anyone thinks Sasai was involved in the fraud. But as the senior scientists involved, both Sasai and my father bore the brunt of the institutional criticism, and both seem to have been far more disturbed by it than the people who actually committed the fraud.

It is impossible to know why they both responded to situations where they apparently did nothing wrong by killing themselves. But it is hard for me not to place at least part of the blame on the way the scientific community responds to scientific misconduct.

Obviously, fraud is a terrible thing. Nothing provides as deep an existential threat to the scientific enterprise than making up data. But as bad as it is, there is something deeply ugly about the way the scientific community responds to misconduct. We need to deal swiftly with fraud when it is identified. But time after time I have watched the way not only the accused, but everyone around them, is treated with such sanctimonious disdain it is frankly not surprising that some of them respond in tragic ways.

Imagine what it must be like to have devoted your life to science, and then to discover that someone in your midst – someone you have some role in supervising – has committed the ultimate scientific sin. That in and of itself must be disturbing enough. Indeed I remember how upset my father was as he was trying to prove that fraud had taken place. But then imagine what it must feel like to all of a sudden become the focal point for scrutiny – to experience your colleagues and your field casting you aside. It must feel like your whole world is collapsing around you, and not everybody has the mental strength to deal with that.

Of course everyone will point out that Sasai was overreacting – just as they did with my father. Neither was accused of anything. But that is bullshit. We DO act like everyone involved in cases of fraud is responsible. We do this because when fraud happens, we want it to be a singularity. We are all so confident this could never happen to us, that it must be that somebody in a position of power was lax – the environment was flawed. It is there in the institutional response. And it is there in the whispers – I still remember how the faculty in my graduate department talked about David Baltimore during the Imanishi-Kari incident.

Given the horrible incentive structure we have in science today – Haruko Obokata knew that a splashy result would get a Nature paper and make her famous and secure her career if only she got that one result showing that you could create stem cells by dipping normal cells in acid – it is somewhat of a miracle that more people don’t make up results on a routine basis. It is important that we identify, and come down hard, on people who cheat (although I wish this would include the far greater number of people who overhype their results – something that is ultimately more damaging than the small number of people who out and out commit fraud).

But the next time something like this happens, I am begging you to please be careful about how you respond. Recognize that, while invariably fraud involves a failure not just of honesty but of oversight, most of the people involved are honest, decent scientists, and that witch hunts meant to pretend that this kind of thing could not happen to all of us are not just gross and unseemly – they can, and sadly do, often kill.

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38 Comments

  1. KP
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I could not agree more. I find it particularly amazing how some of the top-tier “anti-fraud” bishops, who spend their lives trying to purify the kingdom of science from the low class liars, have often build their careers by publishing papers that are (at best) only half-right. The emperor does not always realize that his suit is transparent… So sorry for these (and other) loses.

  2. Carlos
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Sorry to hear about your father. I really do, sometimes we scientist lost touch with the real word, and what really matters.
    I am a European scientist that did a 5 year posdoct at EEUU in a well known and respected University.
    I have to say that the mentoring supervision is totally abandon in the Science system that USA is exporting to many places. Nowadays looks that only matters to bring funds and pile up posdocts in the labs. Most of the PIs does not care at all in supervision at all. They only wants results. So these situations are boosted.
    I can imagine that when this cute Japanese girl come to his supervisor showing these surprising results he saw them as a way to boost their funds and recognition, and totally forgot about doing good science.
    There are two possibilities: Sasai committed fraud or He did not supervised at all to Obakata and got credit for her work (singing as senior author). Both are research misconduct, although the second one is happening in 90% of big labs I have seen and it is broadly tolerated in Science.
    These are one of the consequences of the tyranny of the cell-science-nature journals, that all big PIs are supporting around the globe.
    Well, not all of them, thanks Michael for your PLOS contribution, I really think that your initiative can change many thinks, including this.

    • nagarjun bhatt
      Posted August 7, 2014 at 9:19 am | Permalink

      Its not a suiside ..its a murder ….

    • Science Girl
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Why was it necessary to refer to Haruko Obokata as “this cute Japanese girl”? Do you think this research would have been less likely to be published had she been unattractive or male?

  3. Manish Manish
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    “Good experimentalists don’t actually trust their data, because data can be very misleading and is often, in fact, simply wrong”. Though the witch hunting in science is contagious. It is true that science will drive to a big way, if the scientific community should be in good faith and hence the manipulated data should be punished. But, yes, true, we often become irrational in reacting to these manipulation cases.

  4. BL
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    I think it’s also important to consider what our reactions would be if Obokata herself had committed suicide. The whole thing was a disgusting witch hunt that was borderline hysteria.

  5. Comradde PhysioProff
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Can we ask whether prominent Web sites like Retraction Watch contribute to this toxic “witch hunt” environment?

    • Posted August 6, 2014 at 4:19 am | Permalink

      We can and if you read Retraction Watch regularly, you’ll know that the answer is “no”. It is a fair and balanced blog which focuses firmly on scientific integrity, not on attacking individuals.

      • Posted August 6, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

        The blogge posts themselves at Retraction Watch are reasonable. But the comments section is all full of “ban Western blots” and hysterical accusations.

        • Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

          I think all comment sections on all web sites are full of hysterical accusations. Blame Discus and anonymous commenting, not Retraction Watch.

  6. Posted August 5, 2014 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    I have watched those I know get put through the ringer of RW, local press, and unethical university administration in cases where there should have been an investigation yet the surrounding loss of perspective was devastating. It did not rise to Michael’s situation but seeing someone seem to age a decade in two years and have their career artificially truncated is really sad.

  7. vivian siegel
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    So well said. Even a whisper of possible misconduct from an editor can be enough to destroy a career – and it happens far too often.

    Your post is so articulate – brought tears to my eyes.

  8. Chuck Crumly
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    An interesting book about the complexities associated with scientific fraud is A Rhum Affair: A True Story of Botanical Fraud by Karl Sabbagh. Most of the story concerns a particular case in from the early 1900s. But the end of the book explores more recent cases including the incident involving a member of the Baltimore lab. The take away is that frauds and errors occur in many ways – small and large – intentional and accidental – always regrettable, unfortunate and unacceptable.
    Your post has served the important function of heightening awareness. It is sad that a tragedy reminds us that compassion for the innocent, sometimes swept up unjustly, should be part of every inquiry. And, of course, the guilty deserve due process. Whispers and innuendo are also wrong. When it comes to scientific fraud no one wins.

  9. James Thompson
    Posted August 5, 2014 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    When I was in grad school, I this story came out:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080514/full/453275a.html

    I was surprised by how many of my professors felt a lot of sympathy for the the Principal Investigator in this case, but in retrospect it’s not that surprising. You can only do so much as an adviser, science is built on trust and verification, and in the end nature can’t be fooled.

    Thanks for writing about this.

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      The perspective of myself and everyone else I know on the case mentioned above -the Hellinga case- was the opposite. Much of the sympathy was for the graduate student given that the PI did come across as the villain. Of course, without critical details and Duke never made their report public- though it cleared the graduate student (what does that say about the PI?).

  10. Fred
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    How exactly was this a witch hunt? As far as I know, the allegations were confirmed by RIKEN’s internal investigation. These papers would never have been retracted unless the community had first exposed the misconduct and then mounted fierce pressure on the institution and the senior authors to investigate.

    Obviously this is a tragedy, but your line of argument is too convenient. The problem isn’t people like Obokata. This was not an elaborate fraud. She is not a Mark Spector. In fact, this was so poorly done that some random guy glancing over a copy of the published manuscript could see that some of the data were off. How can the senior authors not be held accountable for this?

    I’m a postdoc. If I don’t do my job, I lose my career. That’s fine, but somehow on the other side of the desk the rules are different. You can grotesquely fail your job and not only do you get to keep it but somehow nobody is allowed to criticize you or hold you accountable. We should only “come down hard” on the people who cheat, never on those who enable the cheaters. (Do you think these papers would have stood a chance of even being sent out for review without the senior authors’ names on them?)

    If the community is as vindictive or as persecuting as you claim it is, why do so many PIs do zero due diligence on the manuscripts coming out of their labs? Why aren’t they more suspicious of extraordinary claims? Why won’t they look at primary data? Maybe it’s impossible to do all that while securing funding to run a big, influential lab and touring the global lecture circuit. But then maybe they shouldn’t run one.

    • Hal
      Posted August 6, 2014 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Exactly so, and very well put, Fred!

    • angelic
      Posted August 6, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Well said. I am a phd student in the lab of a famous scientist, loved by his community. He has all the time in the world to travel o conferences and give seminars etc. except proper supervision. I have no direction, no vision, no aim.

      Big guns consume couple of phd students’ lives -confidence, life, career, dreams- to get where they are and there is a no justice for the students in that. There is no justice for all the ruined lives.

      I find this tragic event as sad as i find all the depressed, psychologically abused young minds. Nothing more.

      Respectfully,
      Angelique

      • laura
        Posted August 7, 2014 at 4:04 am | Permalink

        Angelique

        My response is to you personally, or those in a similar situation to you. Your supervior may be rubbish in his supervision role, but having recognised this you must stand up for yourself and be counted. Seek out advice from other staff about how to get what you need and ask for mentorship. Do not be afraid to cause a ripple. In a few years time you may regret it if you don’t. Do not let a bad supervisor ruin your PhD or ruin your confidence. It’s not your fault and if his students don’t do something then it will keep happening. Stand up for yourself and be brave. And good luck!

        Best,
        Laura

        • aceil
          Posted August 8, 2014 at 12:06 am | Permalink

          Really, Laura.
          Thank you for your advice which reminds me of an opposite advice someone gave to a student going through what seems like Angelique’s experience: That advice was: Wait until you graduate; NOBODY WANTS A THORN IN THEIR THROAT.
          That said, institutions should adopt policies that safeguard students’ rights.

  11. David
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 5:08 am | Permalink

    I’m not a scientist, and didn’t know anything about Dr. Sasai or this episode until I read this blog post – I’m just Mike Eisen’s uncle, and read his blog from time to time. My heart goes out to Sasai’s family and friends. These witchhunts are hardly confined to science and scientific fraud – think of people who’ve been accused of being plagiarists, or racists, or of having committed some sexual transgression. I’ve thought a lot about this ever since Mike’s dad Howie committed suicide. Nobody who gets to the age of 40 or 50 in this world hasn’t done something – maybe a bunch of things – of which they’re ashamed in retrospect – some really stupid decision(s) they made, some people they treated badly, some action(s) they deeply wish they could take back but can’t. The thought that one’s entire life is going to be picked over and dragged out into the open for all to see is a terrible burden for anyone to bear – you, me, or anyone else. [And, because I’m a law professor by trade, it disturbs me no end that our dysfunctional legal culture bears a good deal of the blame for this]. The most horrible part of these tragedies lies in the fact that these suicides are probably very often acts of love — a desire to protect one’s loved ones from public shame (though of course it is those very loved ones are the ones who are most likely to forgive them for their trivial-in-the-greater-sweep-of-things transgressions).

    • James
      Posted August 18, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      David, I feel for you and Mike. I can’t pretend to imagine what the family went through when Mike’s dad committed suicide. But I also believe that the entire system is to blame for tragedies such as this. And most to blame are people who sit at the top of the pyramid and game the system in their own self-interest, and perpetuate it to maintain their power. I would be delighted if we can all share more of the credit and wealth in Science, but the system won’t allow it. It is a winner take all system-one which creates a great deal of animosity and jealousy that can cause collateral damage such as that which occurred to your family. God bless.

  12. Sanal MG
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    This is SHOCKING! Please do not blame me if I suspect the current crazy system behind this kill where scientists are graded on the basis of the number of publications and journal impact factors, rather than their impact on the growth of science and betterment of society. If some one had doubt why some one like Randy Schekman blamed journals such as Nature, Science or Cell, here scored the answer in scarlet (1). Hail Randy!. Long back when I was frustrated as a second year PhD student I wrote something in Current Science which they published as a letter-yes my frustrations were right-even after 8 years I strongly feel (2).
    Reference:
    1) Randy Schekman. The Guardian, Monday 9 December 2013 14.30 EST

    2) Sanal MG, Where are we going in science? Publish and perish!Current Science, 2006

    (http://www.iisc.ernet.in/currsci/may102006/1169a.pdf)

  13. BB
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I’m quite prepared to believe that Sasai, like your father, was so affected because he was honest. Such deaths are tragic.

    But I think hard cases make bad law.

    What turns these issues into witch hunts is often the denials and stonewalling (as well as the preceding hubris of the hype, which was extreme in this particular case). If an honest scientist is appraised of a problem, (s)he would go to some length to the discover the truth and also be prepared to admit an error. I think most people would accept that it can happen to anybody to be taken in on occasion. But if the fraud is an isolated instance and is dealt with honestly and openly, the reputational damage should be limited. There are even studies suggesting that one’s reputation for honesty is enhanced by such episodes. I can think of several high-profile cases where senior researchers appear to have taken proactive roles in sorting out problematic publications (Linda Buck, Bert Sakmann, to name a couple of Nobel laureates).

    Compare with the sadly more common occurrence where problems are obvious in published work (serial image manipulation, for instance), but the researchers just try to ignore the whole thing. There are plenty of cases where such researchers publish well, get great jobs and tons of money. These are resources for which we are all competing, and it’s too much to ask that honest scientists avoid mentioning the problems in case these people become upset or depressed. In addition, science is the search for truth, so scientists can hardly leave falsehoods to stand unchallenged.

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      I believe Gary Struhl dealt with an issue of fraud by going into the lab himself and trying to reproduce the results. When he couldn’t, he retracted the paper. You’ve gotta respect that.

    • Posted August 7, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Proactive cases require administration support, journal support etc. If for example, good faith efforts to understand or reveal what happened are met with a wall of accusations about intent or assumptions of bad faith, there can be no good faith effort because it is not allowed.

  14. BB
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    My comment above might appear unnecessarily harsh, as your father (and Sasai) may well have been put under unbearable pressure and suspected unfairly; I didn’t wish to imply otherwise. But the solution should be to get to a situation where it is acceptable to own up to mistakes and where honesty and good faith are recognised. Avoiding mentioning problems in published work is not a solution in my view.

  15. Clare
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Very well put Michael and David. While I sympathise with the postdoc/student perspective (Fred etc), one has to realise that the PIs are under quite incredible pressure and aren’t simply swanning around the globe giving nice talks and basking in their co-workers relfected glory!! Don’t forget that every PI was also a student and postdoc once! Sasai was an incredible scientist, perhaps we will never know why his concentration lapsed to such an extent in these two Nature papers. I would like to point out though that it would be totally unrealistic to ask PIs to check every piece of raw data produced in their labs! Scientific studies are based quite heavily on trust, within each group/collaboration all the way to peer review. Was Sasai’s ”crime” that he trusted his co-worker too much? One should also reflect on the remarkable ability of the scientific world to spot the fake data and force retraction in less than 6 months. Scientists are pretty self governing in this respect.
    As for Obokata, one should also be cautious with critism while the ‘jury is still out’. Yes she had messy lab books (I think we all know a few who fit that category!!) and yes she certainly made some totally unacceptable data manipulations. This should not go unpunished. However, it is yet to be proven that her STAP cells were fabricated. I still have hope that she will show the world how to make them….. time will tell.
    I only wish Sasai had hung on a while, till the hysteria died down. I am sure he would have found that his reputation was not as damaged as he thought. I hope that Michael is mistaken when he says that researchers caught up in fraud charges (even when cleared) are ‘ treated with such sanctimonious disdain’. I certainly didn’t feel any sanctimonious distain (and I am sure I am not alone!!) when the fraud news broke, just sadness and shock.
    For the sake of men like Sasai and Michael’s Dad, scientists should stand together, continue to weed out the fraudulent papers and support those caught up in it. And for the fraudsters? I believe they are simply human beings who cannot stand the pressures of lab life, should not be in a lab and lack the foresight of what their fake data will do to the people around them and the scientific community as a whole. They should be able to leave science and continue life without tragedy (after all, I can think of worse things that man can do).
    Finally, let us remember that PIs are not ‘grant writing, editorial boarding, paper writing, student/postdoc supervising, brilliant idea making, super talk giving’ machines…’ just simple human beings who make mistakes from time to time….
    ….and students/postdocs? take courage and don’t give up. Enjoy the space (who wants a PI breathing down their neck?), test your own ideas….you are the PIs of tomorrow!

    The world lost a remarkable man and scientist this week. I did not know him well but I feel very very sad. My hope now is that the Riken Institute continues its brilliant research, (under the name of Riken!), Obokata is left in peace to try and prove her STAP cells and the memory of Sasai’s incredible scientific legacy long outlives the memory of his bitter end. RIP Sasai.

  16. Clare
    Posted August 6, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Very well put Michael and David. While I sympathise with the postdoc/student perspective (Fred etc.), one has to realise that the PIs are under quite incredible pressure and aren’t simply swanning around the globe giving nice talks and basking in their co-workers reflected glory!! Don’t forget that every PI was also a student and postdoc once! Sasai was an incredible scientist; perhaps we will never know why his concentration lapsed to such an extent in these two Nature papers. I would like to point out though that it would be totally unrealistic to ask PIs to check every piece of raw data produced in their labs! Scientific studies are based quite heavily on trust, within each group/collaboration all the way to peer review. Was Sasai’s ”crime” that he trusted his co-worker too much? One should also reflect on the remarkable ability of the scientific world to spot the fake data and force retraction in less than 6 months. Scientists are pretty self-governing in this respect.
    As for Obokata, one should also be cautious with criticism while the ‘jury is still out’. Yes she had messy lab books (I think we all know a few who fit that category!!) and yes she certainly made some totally unacceptable data manipulations. This should not go unpunished. However, it is yet to be proven that her STAP cells were fabricated. I still have hope that she will show the world how to make them….. time will tell.
    I only wish Sasai had hung on a while, till the hysteria died down. I am sure he would have found that his reputation was not as damaged as he thought. I hope that Michael is mistaken when he says that researchers caught up in fraud charges (even when cleared) are ‘ treated with such sanctimonious disdain’. I certainly didn’t feel any sanctimonious distain (and I am sure I am not alone!!) when the fraud news broke, just sadness and shock.
    For the sake of men like Sasai and Michael’s Dad, scientists should stand together, continue to weed out the fraudulent papers and support those caught up in it. And for the fraudsters? I believe they are simply human beings who cannot stand the pressures of lab life, should not be in a lab and lack the foresight of what their fake data will do to the people around them and the scientific community as a whole. They should be able to leave science and continue life without tragedy (after all, I can think of worse things that man can do).
    Finally, let us remember that PIs are not ‘grant writing, editorial boarding, paper writing, student/postdoc supervising, brilliant idea making, super talk giving’ machines…’ just simple human beings who make mistakes from time to time….
    ….and students/postdocs? take courage and don’t give up. Enjoy the space (who wants a PI breathing down their neck?), test your own ideas….you are the PIs of tomorrow!

    The world lost a remarkable man and scientist this week. I did not know him well but I feel very very sad. My hope now is that the Riken Institute continues its brilliant research, (under the name of Riken!), Obokata is left in peace to try and prove her STAP cells and the memory of Sasai’s incredible scientific legacy long outlives the memory of his bitter end. RIP Sasai.

  17. ES
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    The deaths of Sasai and Michael’s dad are indeed very tragic. While we can discuss the causes and consequences of research misconduct, publishing races and splashy headlines, the bottomline is that scientists and students are all just people. And people make mistakes, need attention and need support. In my experience high-profile research institutes tend to accumulate a group of very-smart and very-busy scientists who have no time for themselves or their students. In most situations nether the students, nor the PIs have someone qualified and approachable to discuss their problems in a confidential and trustful environment. Most research institutes do not have visible counsellors and the staff is usually not aware of available help. I think we can all agree that there can be many difficult personal and professional trials in a scientific career and that is why it is very important to ensure that an avenue for help is available.

  18. Justin Loe
    Posted August 7, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    My take on this is that the psychological culture of modern science increases the chance of these sad events. Many friends of mine, from reputable institutions, such as Harvard, MIT, among others left science because the aggravations of both the scientific funding environment, and, candidly, working with unforgiving mentors, led them to seek better opportunities in the private sector. Quite frankly, modern science rewards narcissistic behavior by primary investigators, and discourages mentorship. This has been experienced by friends of mine at Harvard and at Berkeley among other places.

    While the academic culture may frown upon the business world and its pursuit of the bottom line, the very narcissistic tendencies that are ridiculed in the press on Wall Street are quite prevalent in academia.

    Of course, my comments should in no way apply to all scientists. But, there is a sufficient minority to make many of us wonder: why put up with this?

  19. Robert Geller
    Posted August 8, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I’m Bob Geller, professor of geophysics (seismology) at the University of Tokyo, where I’ve been for 30 years. You and your readers may be interested in what I wrote about the STAP fiasco in March if you haven’t already seen it.
    http://www.ipscell.com/2014/03/guest-post-a-seismologist-from-japan-looks-at-the-stap-cells-mess/

    Your post at the head of this blog calls for an end to “witch hunts.” I’m not aware of any witch hunts in connection with the STAP fiasco, and I’d be interested in learning what you were alluding to.

    As I’m sure you know Obokata et al. published two papers in Nature in January of this year, which were marred by fabrication and image manipulation as well as just poor science, and these papers were retracted by Nature in early July. The whole process was prolonged due to the resistance of some of the authors to retraction.

    As happened in Korea in 2006 after the Hwang fiasco, or in the US and Germany after the Schön fiasco in the early 2000s, the cognizant institutions (Riken and Harvard for the STAP fiasco) have set up disciplinary processes under their compliance procedures. This is completely normal, and is certainly not a witch hunt. As for Dr. Sasai, the interim report of Riken’s committee investigating this matter said that he and the other co-authors weren’t directly responsible for the fraud—only Dr. Obokata was—but that he failed in his supervisory responsibilities (as did other senior co-authors). You can see the report at the following link. http://www3.riken.jp/stap/e/f1document1.pdf

    Dr. Obokata has retained a team of lawyers and it appears likely that, as is her right, she will fight Riken’s (likely, but not yet assessed) discipline in a court of law. The other co-authors of course have this right too, as would Dr. Sasai have had. So Dr. Sasai’s suicide, as is any suicide, is unfortunate and regrettable, but I don’t think it is reasonable to say that he or anyone else was in any way the subject of a witch hunt.

    Finally, you should understand that Riken is directly under the control of the Ministry of Education, with only ceremonial but no actual external review. So not only the Kobe Riken institute but all of Riken represents a tremendous governance problem for Japanese science (it’s gotten much worse over the past 10-15 years, especially in the last 3 or 4). So something drastic has to be done. Perhaps people outside Japan, especially if they aren’t fluent in the Japanese language, aren’t aware of the scope and seriousness of the Riken problem in general.

    • Posted August 9, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Thanks for providing the report! I read it, and I think it was mostly fair and square. However, the supervisors were actually blamed for the misconduct — the report states “They were negligent in allowing this kind of fabrication, but though this does not extend to confirmation of their direct involvement in the fabrication, they still bear heavy responsibility given their standing.” I think it’s difficult to apportion blame to co-authors and supervisors. I’m a Senior Lecturer and at least my university has never given me any guidelines as to whether and to what extent I’m supposed to be checking the data of my PhD students, post-docs and/or international collaborators. Does RIKEN? This is an honest question. I’m getting the impression that researchers and supervisors have to figure out from the media responses and the comments and blogs on retraction watch how carefully we need to check our collaborator’s data to avoid disaster…

  20. Raj Kannan
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:18 am | Permalink

    Dr. Sasai’s death should mark a new chapter. He didn’t die to make a fashion statement. He was pushed to the brink of losing his identity and therefore meaning in life. We cannot let ourselves forget his horrible death. I propose that we celebrate Dr.Sasai’s death anniversary as the Scientific Integrity day. Every journal should carry the news of his death annually so that we, the next generation of scientists, work towards a future where no researcher has to hang himself or herself. Michael, I am equally disturbed to hear about your father.

  21. don
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Thank you Prof Eisen for this moving post. Yoshiki Sasai was a brilliant scientist with many important contributions, including growing neural structures in the dish, and identifying with his colleagues the signals from Spemann’s organizer that induce neural tissues in embryos (a very famous problem in developmental biology).

    I think non-specialists including yourself have slightly misinterpreted this story. You assume Obokata committed fraud and say that she “knew that a splashy result would get a Nature paper and make her famous and secure her career if only she got that one result showing that you could create stem cells by dipping normal cells in acid” . But the scale of this discovery is rather unlike most other ‘regular’ discoveries published in Nature. If true it would have been the biggest discovery in stem cell biology, indeed in all of biology for at least a decade. Unlike say the iPS cell story, which was a tremendous technical, but not really a conceptual, sea change in cell biology (because we already knew that misexpressed genes could change cell fate, and that somatic cells could be reprogrammed to the totipotent state by oocyte cytoplasm), the STAP cell story presented a radically different view of what can create a stem cell, namely non-specific stresses. The authors knew how astonishing this is, and that every pluripotent stem cell lab in the world would ultimately try to replicate their results. So the idea that Obokata simply committed fraud to get a Nature paper, or secure her career (as some other people no doubt do) sounds unlikely to me. This paper would have been a huge discovery wherever it was published, and with highly respected Japanese scientists among the authors would have received everyone’s attention. The authors were clearly completely convinced it was true when they published.

    Robert Geller, a seismologist, has written several rather irrelevant posts on this topic blaming Riken scientists’ autonomy and privileged status, and perhaps japanese society, for the stap story. What on earth do these have to do with the decision of the scientists to pursue the research or with their mistakes? Does he really think that someone like Sasai who has devoted their life to science, is going to be motivated by these political considerations instead of the scientific ones, especially with a discovery like this one, which is certain to be tested by many other scientists?

    The last bit in this long post: The STAP phenomenon has not been seriously tested by other labs, as far as we know. A website in Paul Knoepfler’s blog claims to aggregate replications but these are childishly designed experiments which mostly use the wrong type of cells (human not mouse, aged not neonatal etc) and were all posted with minimal details within a few weeks of publication. They are not serious experiments. Indeed developments in the STAP cell story have been driven by the media, not by science, with personal attacks on the integrity of the scientists by reporters and other non-specialists. Given how astonishing the claimed finding is, and the many mistakes in the papers, the stap story is indeed likely not to be true. But attempted replications in various labs have been ongoing, and in the end we need not rumors, but data in the form of a scientific paper.

  22. don
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you Prof Eisen for this moving post. Yoshiki Sasai was a brilliant scientist with many important contributions, including growing neural structures in the dish, and identifying with his colleagues the signals from Spemann’s organizer that induce neural tissues in embryos (a very famous problem in developmental biology).

    I think non-specialists including yourself have slightly misinterpreted this story. You assume Obokata committed fraud and say that she “knew that a splashy result would get a Nature paper and make her famous and secure her career if only she got that one result showing that you could create stem cells by dipping normal cells in acid” . But the scale of this discovery is rather unlike most other ‘regular’ discoveries published in Nature. If true it would have been the biggest discovery in stem cell biology, indeed in all of biology for at least a decade. Unlike say the iPS cell story, which was a tremendous technical, but not really a conceptual, sea change in our understanding of cell biology (because we already knew that misexpressed genes could change cell fate, and that somatic cells could be reprogrammed to the totipotent state by oocyte cytoplasm), the STAP cell story presented a radically different view of what can create a stem cell, namely non-specific stresses. The authors knew how astonishing this is, and that every pluripotent stem cell lab in the world would ultimately try to replicate their results. So the idea that Obokata simply committed fraud to get a Nature paper, or secure her career (as some other people no doubt do) sounds unlikely to me. This paper would have been a huge discovery wherever it was published, and with highly respected Japanese scientists among the authors would have received everyone’s attention. The authors were clearly completely convinced it was true when they published.

    Robert Geller, a seismologist, has written several rather irrelevant posts on this topic blaming Riken scientists’ autonomy and privileged status, and perhaps japanese society, for the stap story. What on earth does this have to do with the decision of the scientists to pursue the research or with their mistakes? Does he really think that someone like Sasai who has devoted their life to science, is going to be motivated by these political considerations instead of the scientific ones, especially with a discovery like this one, which is certain to be tested by many other scientists?

    The last bit in this long post: The STAP phenomenon has not been seriously tested by other labs, as far as we know. A website in Paul Knoepfler’s blog claims to aggregate replications but these are childishly designed experiments which mostly use the wrong type of cells (human not mouse, aged not neonatal etc) and were all posted with minimal details within a few weeks of publication. They are not serious experiments. Indeed developments in the STAP cell story have been driven by the media, not by science, with personal attacks on the integrity of the scientists by reporters and other non-specialists. Given how astonishing the claimed finding is, and the many mistakes in the papers, the stap story is indeed likely not to be true. But attempted replications in various labs have been ongoing, and in the end we need not rumors, but data in the form of a scientific paper.

  23. KW
    Posted August 14, 2014 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    What a terrible loss you have experienced, and I am grateful that you chose to write this post. I am a high school science teacher. I promise to honor your father’s death by discussing this situation with my students. When the scientific community loses sight of the highest aim of science – understanding the universe so that we might enjoy it and use what we know to serve others – the consequences are systemic and personal. I am certain that both your father and Dr. Sasai made the world a better place through their work. I wish you all the best as you do the same at Berkley and HHMI.

  24. binay panda
    Posted August 21, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    michael, thank you for getting your personal story out and what happened to your dad. we all feel for you. i believe the root cause of the problem is the method and means by which we incentivise scientists. i have blogged about this (http://ganitlabs.blogspot.in) as well.

    i am in india and our situation is even grimmer. but i believe we have a chance to make a quantum leap in the area of science evaluation.