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Tatsuya Kimura, Sho Funakoshi and Yuichi Morii
Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014

Asia

Faults of lenient Japanese academia revealed

The Yomiuri Shimbun/ANN | Tatsuya Kimura, Sho Funakoshi and Yuichi Morii | Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014

Amid a series of research misconduct cases involving universities and research institutions in the nation, such as the recent controversy over articles on stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells, there is increasing criticism over insufficient investigations into suspected research misconduct.

For example, an investigative panel at Waseda University probed the work of Haruko Obokata, a unit leader at government-backed research institute RIKEN, who is at the centre of the scandal over STAP cells. It said there was no need for the university to retract her doctorate although the panel admitted the doctoral thesis contained misconduct and irregularities.

Meanwhile, RIKEN's internal investigative committee that was in charge of reviewing the STAP articles had overly narrowed down the range of issues to be covered, raising one new doubt after another since its investigation was closed.

These cases shed light on the lenient attitude of research institutions and universities toward their colleagues and fellow researchers.

"I can never go along with such a result. Japan's academics will lose trust if this goes on," a Waseda professor in a department related to science and technology said with anger after the university's investigative panel announced its final report on the probe of Obokata's doctoral thesis Thursday.

The panel identified intentional misconduct in six parts of Obokata's thesis, including the fact that text on 20 pages-about one-fifth of the entire thesis-were copied from the website of the US National Institutes of Health, while also pointing out a total of 20 irregularities such as fraudulent use of images.

Even with these conclusions, the panel judged that there was no need for Waseda to retract Obokata's doctorate because it judged the research misconduct and irregularities were not made to fabricate the experiment results that constitute the basis of the thesis.

Under Waseda's rules, academic degrees will be retracted if they are obtained through illicit means. Hideaki Kobayashi, the lawyer who headed the investigative panel, said at the press conference announcing the findings Thursday, "Even though we think it is wrong at heart, we cannot retract her doctorate if we interpret the rules as written."

In that regard there is criticism from within and without the university, such as, "If the university awards an academic degree to a student who has committed research misconduct, it sets a bad precedent."

Meanwhile, some point out that the investigation itself was insufficient. Interviewing people involved in suspected research misconduct is the most important method to discover the full scope of suspicious activity. However, the panel conducted only one 90-minute interview with Obokata and it was not able to interview Harvard University Prof. Charles Vacanti, an advisor for Obokata's experiment described in the doctoral thesis, because he had refused to be interviewed. Concerning notebooks on the experiment, which could have served as evidence to back up the thesis, only copies of some parts of the notebooks were submitted.

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