Did Obokata get a fair shake on STAP cell mess?

Whether STAP cells are real or baloney, much went wrong with the actual STAP cell Nature papers and the research reported in them by Obokata and her co-authors.

Who is responsible for these two deeply flawed papers?

Haruko Obokata
Haruko Obokata.

I’m not sure we have enough information at this time to know definitively how responsibility/blame should be apportioned, but first author Dr. Haruko Obokata has so far received the lion’s share of the blame.

Is that just?

Her institution RIKEN seems to be placing almost all of the blame on Obokata and publicly announced that they believed she had committed misconduct.

In contrast, her mentors there and at Harvard Medical School have, at least so far, apparently largely avoided serious repercussions from STAP.

In its report and press conferences, senior scientists and leaders from RIKEN have also publicly used surprisingly pejorative language about Obokata. For example, the Japan Times quoting the RIKEN report on STAP:

“The final report also noted Obokata’s “actions and sloppy data management lead us to the conclusion that she sorely lacks, not only a sense of research ethics, but also integrity and humility as a scientific researcher.””

That’s extremely tough and personal talk.

Is it fair?

Most of us do not have the knowledge to know.

To be clear, Obokata is one of the people primarily responsible for STAP. She was first author on both papers and corresponding author too. When these papers came out she was already a principal investigator.

At the same time though she had some very senior scientists with her on these papers and as her mentors they must share at least some significant responsibility with her for the STAP situation. It doesn’t really feel like these others have taken responsibility so far. Much of this has unfolded as predicted by guest blogger Robert Geller right here.

The journal Nature should have some responsibility too. We still have not heard from Nature on what it plans to do about STAP. Meanwhile two very screwed up papers still stand as is in Nature.

More broadly it feels as though the STAP situation is entering a quieter period with blame largely locked in on Obokata as perhaps the other parties involved hope if any further action is needed they can do so later, quietly, after things have calmed down.

19 thoughts on “Did Obokata get a fair shake on STAP cell mess?”

  1. untenured scientist

    Yeah, I pretty much agree with both of the above comments (neuroskeptic and stefan).

  2. I have a very simple rule for deciding whether people are being treated fairly in cases like these:

    “The more credit you’d have got had the science been good, the more blame you get when it turns out to be bad”.

    Obokata was reaping the lions’ share of the credit for STAP, pre-scandal So she should shoulder the lion’s share of the blame. Had STAP panned out, her future scientific career would have been assured. Those were the stakes.

  3. Of course, Ishii’s defense that image manipulation was not a problem 10 years ago is very weak. But he has shown the raw data to back up his claim that the scientific conclusions of their papers are not affected. As I understand it, Obokata has not been able, or willing, to do the same. This is a fundamental difference between the two cases.

    Unfortunately, Ken’s second comment is rather naive. I say “unfortunately”, because what he describes is how it should be. But the drive to get on a paper as co-author is so strong these days (especially for Nature/Science) that time- or other considerations can severely limit a co-author’s actual involvement. I think that in practice, co-authors often simply trust the first author to do a proper job revising a paper, if they are involved in the revision process at all. To illustrate my point, I can say that I have been co-author on a Nature/Science paper several times, and rarely did I get to see the referee’s comments (or even the paper itself until the moment of final submission). I think practices like these are endemic worldwide, and would not be symptomatic for these particular researchers or Japanese science.

    1. Let me back up a couple of points…

      According to the report, Obokata refused to disclose the Science ms. So we don’t know for sure who was in the author list or if there was another corresponding author. So it’s possible other authors didn’t get to see the reviewers’ comment. Teru Wakayama told that the first time he saw the Nature ms. was when the journal sent him a proof and that he didn’t have a chance to do any substantial change.

      We don’t know what was in the Science ms., but judging from the contents of the 2014 Nature Article and the Letter, I wouldn’t believe that it was handled by a sloppy start-up faculty single-handedly. For the 2014 Nature papers, Sasai was actively involved in revising.

      Yes, I know and have seen the practice of signing a ms. without reading it, and as a matter of fact, it was reported that an anonymous author of the STAP papers admitted it. I strongly detest this practice, not only because it’s against the authorship ethics, but because I believe this practice indirectly caused this mess. The big names on the papers boosted up the credibility of the study with no base. I understand journals are somehow trying to address this issue. Now It’s common that a journal asks to declare contribution of each author when we submit a ms.

      As for splicing in a gel image, Obokata indeed submitted the raw data, which supports the original conclusion. It appered in the supplementary presentation file for the Riken’s initial report. Some still argue that the Ishii’s case is different, because he didn’t elongate or shrink gel images as Obokata did, but I thinks this arguments is missing the point. Both manipulated gel images so that bands appear where they want to be. If you compare Ishii’s gel image before and after correction, you will notice that spliced Gapdh bands in the original paper were moved horizontally so that they match with the other lanes. That’s exactly what Obokata tried to achieve.

      My opinion is that gel image splicing itself shouldn’t amount to retraction, as long as the original data exists. The erroneous teratoma image, on the other hand, is more grave. My understanding is that Otokata lost overall credibility of her study due to her bad bookkeeping and due to lack of independent reproduction of her data.

  4. A couple of recent developments and my thoughts related to the issue…

    Shunsuke Ishii, the head of the Riken’s investigative committee, resigned after exposure of inappropriate image manipulation in his own publication (Oncogene, 2008 and JBC, 2004).
    He defended that his presentation was “not a problem, according to the rules ten years ago”. Now this is a total b.s. As I explained in my previous post, this kind of image manipulation was clearly a problem even 10 years ago. If Obokata is fired and Ishii gets away (one of the journals already accepted his corrigendum), I would say it’s completely unfair. Intent is irrelevant. Raw data cannot be manipulated in certain ways or such manipulation has to be disclosed.

    Riken released the final reports
    A full report is not available in English (yet), but I found a appalling fact in it. The manuscript was initially rejected by Nature in May, 2012. Then the authors revised it and submitted to Science, which rejected again in August, 2012. According to the report, one of the Science reviewers pointed this out:

    “Moreover this figure has been reconstructed. It is normal practice to insert thin white lines between lanes taken from different gels (lanes 3 and 6 are spliced in). Also I find the leading edge of the GL band suspiciously sharp in #2-#5.”

    Does this refer to Fig. 1i of the Nature Article? One of the problems in the STAP papers was already pointed out in 2012!!! And the authors just ignored it??? Well, now we know Obokata is sloppy, allegedly, so I can imagine she just missed this comment, but what about other authors? Don’t you read reviewers’ comments very carefully, especially when you got rejected, and try to incorporate them when you revise your manuscript? What’s going on? Now I don’t think other senior authors (except Sasai, who hadn’t joined the band yet in 2012) can possibly claim that they didn’t’ know, thus they are innocent.

    1. untenured scientist

      I agree that its very awkward that the head of the investigating committee has violated some well established rules in presenting his own data. For this he has rightly stepped down and will be investigated. However, I do not believe that the accusations made against Drs. Ishii and Obokata are at all equivalent. In the first case, you have no evidence of scientific fraud. In the other case, there may be no evidence of anything *but* fraud. I think these problems are of different magnitudes. I also think that intent is highly relevant, since none of us is perfect. Sorry, but I just wanted to argue this point. Everything else you wrote I agree with.

  5. untenured scientist

    In answer to your question, I don’t see much evidence that Dr. Obokata was treated unfairly. I tend to think that, no matter how you divvy up the responsibility, she gets the biggest slice. I also think that perhaps the “personal talk” might have something to do with the fact that, if fraud was committed, then Dr. Obokata has not taken full responsibility for it, as would be expected of someone in her position. Similar cases here are usually handled quietly and the responsible person generally steps down and gets out of the spotlight quickly. Of course, if her claims are found to be true, then people will rightly say she was treated unfairly. But it is up to the institute to determine whether or not there are grounds for misconduct, and they have made their decision. Personally speaking, when a scientist hires a pack of lawyers to defend her science, it does not inspire confidence. In any case, the Nature papers should be retracted.

    1. I am afraid to say,but how can she prove the existence of STAP cell scientifically in the situation her company doesn’t allow her to enter her lab ? To change that situation,she hired lawyers. I know she made big mistakes,but I think she is treated unfairly. I agree with this blog in this point.

      1. A surpringly large number of people in Japan (probably not very many working researchers are included in this group), including this post, seem to be framing the issue as establishing “whether or not STAP cells exist.” The view of this group seems to be that if the existence of “STAP cells” (whatever they are–they don’t seem to be well defined) is established, then Dr. Obokata is home free and clear.

        In my opinion this school of thought is flawed. If FFP (fabrication, falsification, plagiarism) is established (which it has been) then the paper should be retracted and the guilty parties should be subject to discipline.

        In my opinion the relevant open questions are 1) the divvying up of blame among the various co-authors of Obokata et al., and 2) how to deal with the numerous other authors whose image alterations are now coming to light. It doesn’t seem right to me to throw the book at Dr. Obokata and let all the other alterers off with a slap on the wrist.

  6. Robert Geller

    The Riken Board of Directors has officially accepted the finding of its investigation committee that the appeal by Dr. Obokata can be rejected, so the finding that she (and only she) is guilty of research misconduct is finalized. So now Riken moves on to the penalty phase of their internal processes.

    News story in Japanese (free registration required): http://www.asahi.com/articles/ASG583R28G58ULBJ003.html

  7. Prof. Robert Geller’s comments on the role played by RIKEN President Ryoji Noyori, deserves some addition. I bring to your attention Prof. Noyori’s message, which appeared in the ‘Japan News’ by the Yomiuri Shimbun of March 2, 2014. Previously this daily was known as the Daily Yomiuri, until March 2013.

    In his interview, Noyori gave a positive spin to Haruko Obokata’s research as follows. I quote extensively, because it is revealing of Noyori’s character and the current trend of direction at the RIKEN. “Obokata challenged herself. She has a very flexible mentality. Her talents and capability were inspired by exposure to many different kinds of people. I think RIKEN is the fourth place she has worked. Researchers, whether young or old, should not be isolated because this is an era of ‘network science’. We require team work, not group work. A team is different from a group. A group is just a structure with a large number of people, while a team refers to an effective interaction of functions. Nine players interact closely and cooperate with each other to win. In order to solve an important scientific or technological problem, you should collect or integrate people possessing various kinds of knowledge and expertise. Obokata’s discovery is the result of such fruitful teamwork.”

    As of now, to the best of my knowledge, Prof. Noyori has not publicly retracted these thoughts on Obokata, as published in the Japan News of March 2, 2014.

  8. Robert Geller

    The plot thickens….

    Two hours after the report on Japan’s public broadcaster than Riken had rejected Dr. Obokata’s appeal, the 11pm news report on TBS, the Tokyo flagship station of one of the major national networks (JNN) reported that Riken’s board of directors decided to make a definite decision either to accept or reject Dr. Obokata’s appeal, but rather decided to postpone the decision.

    I suppose it’ll become clear soon which report was correct….

  9. Robert Geller

    According to a report on the 9pm news on Japan’s public broadcaster Riken has rejected Dr. Obokata’s request for a rehearing of their investigating committee’s finding that she (alone) committed misconduct. The news report quoted Dr. Obokata’s statement that she hadn’t been officially informed but was very disappointed.

    Presumably this means that Riken will now move on to determining the penalty (including the possibility of dismissal) to be levied against her and the other Riken-affiliated co-authors. After the penalties are levied the accused retain the right to fight the penalties in a court of law.

  10. I am not a biologist, but as a scientist I know how it is difficult to publish in Nature. So I am wondering from the beginning of this story, how is the part of responsibility of the editor and referees who have accepted those papers ? And if there are so many “mistakes” (for the problem of pictures for exemple) how do they could not noticed ?

  11. Robert Geller

    Sadly, things are developing as I predicted in my guest post on March 13 https://www.ipscell.com/2014/03/guest-post-a-seismologist-from-japan-looks-at-the-stap-cells-mess/ .

    Except that I didn’t anticipate the fact that four members of the Riken investigating committee, including the chair, Dr. Ishii, who has announced he’s stepping down, would have copy-and-paste jobs in their own previously published papers become public knowledge,

    What’s sad is the extent to which the committee members themselves as well as Dr. Obokata are resorting to technicalities to explain why these copy-and-paste jobs weren’t REALLY misconduct. This is perhaps understandable because they want to keep their positions, but it’s still sad.

    It seems obvious that standards for PhD theses within Japan, at least at some universities, were virtually non-existent, and that wide-spread copying-and pasting of text, plagiarism, to put it bluntly, was more or less openly tolerated. I have no idea how widespread figure-doctoring is in Japanese biological science, but as an outsider I’m guessing there are a fair number of people who do it at least sometimes (judging from the Riken committee members).

    I’m also guessing that there are a fair number of people in Japan who DO NOT alter figures in papers, and who are appalled by the non-negligible fraction of the community who do this. My reason for making this inference is the regularity and celerity with which reports of these instances of inappropriate practices are popping up in anonymous blogs on the internet. The fact that the evidence–the existence of copying and pasting or other figure alteration–speaks for itself makes whistle-blowing a painless process.

    Japanese science (this probably goes beyond biological science) will have to somehow clean itself up. This won’t be easy but if we don’t do (I say we because although I’m still a US citizen I’ve been a tenured faculty member at the Univ of Tokyo for 30 years) Japanese science will be questioned strongly by the international community.

    Finally, let’s get back to the case of Dr. Obokata. If we use the analogy of a court-martial (military trial) what’s going on now is the pre-trial investigation. Dr. Noyori, the president of Riken, is like the commanding officer (convening authority) who sets the process in motion. But he’s already made strong criticisms of Dr. Obokata. In the military this is called “command influence” (inappropriate pressure by the commander which might prejudice the objectivity of the process). I’m sure that if/when Riken announces its verdict against Dr. Obokata and her lawyers take the fight to a civil court in Japan then these statements by Dr. Noyori (made while the Riken investigation was still notionally ongoing) will be cited by her lawyers as evidence of bias against her by Riken’s investigation.

    In the meantime, the two deeply flawed Nature papers still haven’t been retracted. What a mess!

    1. It seems obvious that standards for PhD theses within Japan, at least at some universities, were virtually non-existent, and that wide-spread copying-and pasting of text, plagiarism, to put it bluntly, was more or less openly tolerated.

      Count your university in as well. I have read enough work to have the confidence to claim that all Japanese universities including Tokyo U and do not start me on Kyoto, produce plagiarized material inclusive doctorate theses. Not only copy pasting, but claims of lack of research when just a simple google search reveal several papers on the subject (From which later the author has borrowed some ideas, allegdly).

      Rather than universities, the question should be asked – what the role of thesis supervisor are and how many of them are in the JP academia prepared to prepare the next generation scientists.

    2. Robert and Karl, why do I read bitterness in your comment? May I remind the readers that plagiarism and copy-pasting happens EVERYWHERE, and scanning of theses with plagiarsim detection software are standard in universities in American and Europe for a very good reason. It is easy to blame Japan for poor scientific conduct, since it avoid looking to closely at your own backyard. Juuichijigen has detected many potential scientific misconduct cases not only in Japan but worldwide, and many of the biggest scientific frauds, for example in physics, did not originate from Japan.

      1. Robert Geller

        > It is easy to blame Japan
        > for poor scientific conduct,
        > since it avoid looking
        > to closely at your own backyard.

        Perhaps you are greatly misunderstanding my position.
        (1) Since I’m a permanent faculty member at the University of Tokyo, Japan IS my backyard.
        (2) My criticisms are directed at Riken and the Ministry of Education & etc. (MEXT) for trying to cover up the problems rather than try to fix them, as not only I but also many other people here in Japan are trying to do.

    3. I’m second to John. Let me point out a couple of things:

      1) Fraudulent image manipulation is rather prevalent in the biomedical field. (And we are not proud of it a bit!) It’s not happening only in Japan or it didn’t start recently. It’s been like this for at least a decade. It’s just an inevitable consequence of the modern technology (digital imaging and Photoshop). An inexperienced user (a graduate student or a postdoc) could easily cross the fine line of acceptable image manipulation. Read this article in Nature published 9 years ago (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v434/n7036/full/434952a.html). It says, “In 1989–90, only 2.5% of allegations examined by the US Office of Research Integrity, which monitors misconduct in biomedical research, involved contested scientific images. By 2001, this figure had jumped to nearly 26% (ref. 1).” A major change since then is perhaps that now many scientific journals enacted guidelines for image manipulation to explicitly ban unacceptable manipulation. Numerous alleged image manipulations in papers by Obokata et al. and other Riken investigators is only a reflection of unprecedented attention and scrutiny after publication of the STAP papers (which is not a bad thing at all).

      2) To my opinion, Riken still maintains integrity. Now Dr. Noyori called for voluntary self-review of all the Riken’s publication in the past (source: http://www.nature.com/news/accusations-pile-up-amid-japan-s-stem-cell-controversy-1.15163). Has any of the presidents of U.S. universities issued such a statement? We had a major scientific misconduct in a neighboring department, which resulted in retraction of multiple papers from prominent journals. Initially, the scandal got a lot of attention and Nature reported several times, just like the STAP incident. But later the problem seemed to cease to exist, probably because nobody cared, and at the end the only media covering the issue was a students’ newspaper. The University didn’t even bother to make its final report public. That I call a cover-up. I just feel ashamed. Compared to this, Riken and Japan are in a far better position.

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