Truth about STAP fabrication case must be uncovered
The controversy over two articles written by an international team led by a RIKEN researcher, about what it calls stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP), must be regarded as a situation that seriously affects this nation’s scientific research. Japan’s scientific efforts are at risk of losing international confidence.
On Tuesday, RIKEN’s investigative committee published a final report that concluded the papers in question contained “deliberate alterations and fabrication.”
RIKEN has said it will urge the team led by Haruko Obokata, the lead author of the theses, to retract them.
RIKEN’s authority has been dealt a serious blow, only two months after the team drew international attention to papers claiming success in creating the STAP cell as “a third kind of pluripotent cell.” What were the factors behind this? We hope RIKEN will keep trying to uncover the whole truth, including whether the STAP cell truly exists.
Through fact-finding interviews with people involved with the papers in question, the investigative panel has declared that Obokata was solely responsible for misconduct that included alterations to an image used in the articles.
The RIKEN committee has concluded that several photos used in the articles were “fabricated.” This conclusion is particularly disconcerting in that the images in question were claimed by the team as evidence proving the pluripotency of STAP cells. The authenticity of the papers has been fundamentally shaken.
The panel also mentioned inadequacies attributable to figures with ties to RIKEN, whose names were included in the list of the papers’ coauthors. Its report said these people had not done enough to fulfill their duties related to the articles, including the examination of the data presented by Obokata.
When the papers about the STAP method were published in January, RIKEN officials spoke with a unified voice in praising the achievement claimed by Obokata’s team. They emphasized the discovery had been made possible as a result of veteran scientists supporting the innovative ideas generated by such a young researcher.
However, the results of the panel’s investigation brought to light the carelessness evident in the process of putting the papers together, as the scientists involved failed to properly communicate with each other.
RIKEN has kept in place a set of regulations aimed at preventing its staff from conducting dishonest research activities. The rules include an obligation to ensure procedures, facts and data related to experiments are appropriately written into laboratory notebooks, while also properly preserving these records. Also included in the rules is to thoroughly confirm what kind of responsibility is to be assumed by each coauthor of an article.
Obokata was found to have retained such records only in two notebooks over the past three years. It has also been discovered that the notebooks only contained fragmentary and undated facts and data.
In a statement issued about the results of the investigation, she has called the report totally unacceptable. Obokata also said she would file a complaint against Riken. However, if she wants to rebut the results of the investigation, Obokata must appear in public and explain the grounds on which her assertion is based.
The dispute over the papers is believed to affect a government plan to name RIKEN as a specified national research and development corporation under a new designation system.
Large salaries would be paid to attract excellent researchers. RIKEN needs, first and foremost, to enhance its governance as a research institution while also implementing steps to prevent a similar incident from taking place again.
The STAP case has raised questions about reporting news on scientific discoveries.
Any science paper that has just been published is to be regarded as showing that theories and advancements documented therein are in the process of being verified.
Such theories often prove to be misconceived.
Even an achievement that scientists claim can overturn long-held beliefs has the possibility of turning out to be false.
We must all be reminded of the importance of reporting scientific news objectively and calmly.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, April 2, 2014)