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Biotech Science

Japanese Stem Cell Debacle Could Bring Down Entire Center 52

sciencehabit (1205606) writes Shutting down the research center at the heart of an unfolding scientific scandal may be necessary to prevent a recurrence of research misconduct, according to a report released at a press conference in Tokyo today. A committee reviewing conduct at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, found lax oversight and a failure on the part of senior authors of two papers in Nature outlining a surprisingly simple way of reprogramming mature cells into stem cells. The committee surmised that a drive to produce groundbreaking results led to publishing results prematurely. "It seems that RIKEN CDB had a strong desire to produce major breakthrough results that would surpass iPS cell research," the report concludes, referring to another type of pluripotent stem cell. "One of our conclusions is that the CDB organization is part of the problem," said committee chair Teruo Kishi Kishi. He recommends a complete overhaul of CDB, including perhaps restructuring it into a new institute. "This has to be more than just changing the nameplate."
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Japanese Stem Cell Debacle Could Bring Down Entire Center

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  • Up next (Score:4, Funny)

    by Cryacin ( 657549 ) on Thursday June 12, 2014 @07:23PM (#47225985)
    A simple way to achieve cold fusion using nothing but a toothpick, a nail file and a paperclip. By A McGuyver
  • by machineghost ( 622031 ) on Thursday June 12, 2014 @07:23PM (#47225989)

    That paper should never have made it out, so something must be seriously wrong at that lab. Kudos to them for addressing the problem and not trying to sweep it under the rug.

  • They must know they will be found out - especially the more sensational the finding. After all, science is not like philosophy. Science is meant to be used, and for something to be used it has to work. People will try to use it and it wont work and they will immediately know that there has been a falsification. I mean, it's not like this kind of stuff is up to interpretation or anything - there is a method and a result. If there is no result then the method is in error. What are they thinking?
    • by alen ( 225700 )

      yeah, but what if you get it right?
      you would be famous and RICH

      • And what if you don't get it right FIRST? Then someone else would be famous and rich.

      • yeah, but what if you get it right?
        you would be famous and RICH

        Lol. You don't get famous, nor near a far vicinity of being rich by publishing some papers in Nature/etc.

    • by WrongMonkey ( 1027334 ) on Thursday June 12, 2014 @08:16PM (#47226251)
      It's usually not an intentional falsification. They might truly believe that their method works, but they rush to publish with proper verification to avoid being scooped.
      • Bullshit. It works or it doesn't. They knew it didn't, yet they purblished.
        • by Ambassador Kosh ( 18352 ) on Thursday June 12, 2014 @10:43PM (#47226945)

          Biology is insanely complex. So complex that even a .1% impurity of a drug with a dimer form can leave you with a permanent autoimmune disease or outright kill you. There have been experiments before that nobody else could replicate and it turned out to be a batch of pipet tips being used.

          It is not good that they publish without being able to replicate but the incentive system does not encourage that. Nature doesn't publish articles that replicate results or show a negative result on something. How you do as a scientists in today's climate is based on getting in high impact journals. This means as soon as someone gets a working result they immediately try to public it in a major journal to avoid being scooped. They later find out they can't replicate the experiment which means something random made it work that they don't understand and probably did not write down.

          You get what you incentivize regardless of the field. This is true in politics, education etc and it is why we have so many unintended consequences. We have poor incentive systems and refuse to change them.

          • Never thought I'd ask but... reference please.
            • I don't have any reference for the pipet issue because it was covered in my class on tissue engineering. It is something the professor in my class had ran into when trying to replicate an experiment that someone else had done. They used different sized pipet tips and that changes the shear forces on the cells.

              It sounds really screwed up to me but possible. The problem is that nobody thinks to put that kind of stuff down in a notebook.

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      At the risk of trivializing the issue, it's not so dissimilar to why sometimes people throw good money after bad []... After you've invested all this time researching something and the results are disappointing, you might be tempted to justify your cheating as preserving your time investment in the research direction...

      Perhaps one way to mitigate this is to increase the perceived value of producing negative research results (of course w/o making things too valuable as to encourage folks to research stupid thi

    • by rmstar ( 114746 ) on Friday June 13, 2014 @03:48AM (#47227903)

      Why do scientists falsify? Or how can they? They must know they will be found out - especially the more sensational the finding.

      The answer to that is that they fool themselves. If you ever have been at a top institution of this kind you might have witnessed a certain mix of hubris, megalomania and groupthink. These people tend to be really good, but their selfconfidence, their lack of understanding of statistics, their mutual reinforcement, and the huge pressure to keep producing blockbuster research can warp their thinking. It would not surprise me that they believed the results to be true, but thought it was just the damned data that kept being wrong.

      This sectlike atmosphere at some of these institutions is compounded by the fact that people there work so insanely hard that they don't have time to take a step back and think things through.

    • For the same way journalists write headlines that speak to people ideas such as "Republican Conservative Equivalent in Japan Blowing its Bible Thumper Over Stem Cells, Goes on Assault Against Science" for stories that read more "Severe misconduct and fraud rife within corrupt institution; major restructuring proposed."

      Seriously. "Stem Cell Debacle Could Bring Down Entire Research Lab." That's a screaming political headline. Then you read the article, and no such thing is happening.

    • >After all, science is not like philosophy. Science is meant to be used

      You use philosophy every day. Everyone does. You just don't realize it because it has faded into the background.

      Statements like "People will try to use it and it wont work and they will immediately know that there has been a falsification" reveal what sort of philosophical schools of thought you have bought in to. But they are not God-given, or even necessarily right or best. But you use it anyway because there's a hive mind in scienc

  • Come on guys, it's the best type of display we have right now, don't shut down their research!

  • It is refreshing to see they can chastise the leaders, and not just the scientist that was pushed into misconduct.
  • Shouldn't peer review have caught this before the papers were published?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Peer review "cannot" catch fraud and is not meant for it either. The reviewers do not, and cannot, replicate the results, their job is to see if the piece of research is technically feasible, theoretically sound and to evaluate its notability. Easily reprogrammable cells like STAP cells are the typical high impact research Nature et al. seek to publish. There are caveats in the work that the referees should have (and maybe did) point out, but the editor decided that the concerns that were or were not raised

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        Peer review "cannot" catch fraud and is not meant for it either.

        Sure it is. That's the entire point, to determine if the research is valid. Just because they *do not* review it thoroughly, doesn't excuse them when they fail to catch fraud.

        "The reviewers do not, and cannot, replicate the results"
        And what *excatly* is preventing them?

        • by kahizonaki ( 1226692 ) on Thursday June 12, 2014 @10:10PM (#47226803) Homepage

          Peer review "cannot" catch fraud and is not meant for it either.

          Sure it is. That's the entire point, to determine if the research is valid. Just because they *do not* review it thoroughly, doesn't excuse them when they fail to catch fraud. "The reviewers do not, and cannot, replicate the results" And what *excatly* is preventing them?

          The purpose of peer review is not to replicate results, it is to determine whether the methods are sound, as OP said.

          What *exactly* is preventing them from replicating is: thousands of hours and millions of dollars of equipment. Not everyone has access to a trillion dollar LHC or super high tech bio lab, and even if the reviewer does, he is doing his own research and cannot spend his grant money or time to the experiment described in the paper just for the purpose of peer review.

          Now, you might suggest re-vamping the system so that there is specific funding for scientists to peer review papers, but that is insane since there are literally thousands of papers published every month, and that is only counting the highest tiers of journals and proceedings.

  • Impossible!

    If we do not allow this corrupt science to continue, it will bring down all of science everywhere!

    It is simply too big to fail!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 13, 2014 @05:00AM (#47228115)

    I worked at CDB for a number of years, but I ended up quitting a couple of years ago, in large part due the fraud becoming a bit too much of a daily obstacle to actually getting any work done.

    Rather than go on a (very) long rant about the various problems with RIKEN, let me just give my insider opinion for now. If anyone has any questions, I'll do my best to answer.


    1) Academic misconduct is considerably more widespread in Japan than in the Anglosphere. I've gotten tired of speculating on reasons why that is the case, but Google will probably have something to say on the matter.

    2) Shutting down CDB is actually a rather clever PR stunt on RIKEN's part. As anyone who has spent a long time (10+ years) in Japan can tell you, a large part of Japanese culture, in both the corporate and academic spheres, involves what might be called 'constant renewal'. RIKEN is no exception, where this constant renewal manifests itself in three major ways:

    2a) Non-academic staff at RIKEN shuffle jobs annually or bianually, including (incredibly) the "compliance unit" charged with investigating academic misconduct, commercial fraud, etc. This shuffling is, especially for more senior non-academic staff, generally between units rather than within units. The pretext is that this allows staff to become "generalists" so that RIKEN offices can easily continue running even if a few staff happen to leave all at once for whatever reason. For junior non-academic staff, what this means is that a secretary one year might be a health+safety officer the year after that, and work in the PR department the year after that. Maybe that's suboptimal, but if that was where it ended, I think that would be fair enough.

    Where the real problems start is when more senior staff, such as "deputy lab director", "head of legal" or "compliance officer" start shuffling. In practice this means that an investigation into the purchase of a $50,000 Dell server that should have cost $5,000, the publication of fraudulent research, or even sexual harrassment had better start and finish before April 1st, or the shuffling happens, the new guy says "I know nothing" and the old guy says "sorry, that's not my job any more, talk to the new guy." As you can imagine, RIKEN (like any organization struggling to survive) is not really in any great hurry to investigate itself, so these aborted investigations are essentially all that ever occurs.

    2b) Academic staff at RIKEN shuffle jobs in a rather interesting way; essentially all researchers at RIKEN (including new employees such as Postdocs, but excluding postgraduate interns) have multiple, concurrent positions. A Postdoc with 3+ simultaneous appointments is normal, and even mid-career researchers at RIKEN typically have 7 or so simultaneous appointments, mostly in different research centers. In this way, researchers' employment is effectively made permanent and can easily withstand the elimination of an entire research centre or two. Conversely, one common way for RIKEN employees to be constructively dismissed is to have the number of appointments reduced to one or two, so that when a given RIKEN center is "renewed", the old center ceases to exist and any employees belonging only to that center become redundant.

    2c) RIKEN research centers themselves are continually renewed. In this case, CDB [] might be shut down, and that's going to get a good deal of press. What is going to get less press, I imagine, is that a new center, QBiC [] has recently been opened. While QBiC is currently based in Osaka, 30 miles away, my understanding is that a new QBiC center is being constructed literally across the road from CDB. Should CDB actually be closed, expect the majority of CDB researchers to suddenly find themselves with QBiC appointments (many already have such!) and all this closure will amount to is, quite literally, moving into brand new offices a stone's throw from the existing site.

    3) I think that comme

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