University of Tokyo lab suspected of altering data in 43 scientific papers

July 25, 2013

THE ASAHI SHIMBUN

A group of biologists at a research institute of the prestigious University of Tokyo likely altered or forged materials in 43 published scientific articles, a university panel has concluded.

The panel recommended the withdrawal of the papers authored by Shigeaki Kato, a former professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, and other members of his lab. Most of the irregularities concerned images used in the publications.

Kato, 54, is considered one of the leading molecular biologists in Japan and is a frequent contributor to elite scientific journals. He resigned at the end of March 2012, citing his supervisory responsibility.

He told The Asahi Shimbun he will withdraw the papers in question.

“There certainly were irregularities,” Kato said. “I used to place trust on the members of my lab. I have a major responsibility as a supervisor.

“I extend my heartfelt apologies to the parties involved.”

Kato has led a number of research projects, which have received more than 2 billion yen ($20 million) in public research funding.

The University of Tokyo panel began investigating the case after an outside individual provided a tip in January 2012.

The latest revelation concerns an unusually large volume of scientific text for a single case.

More than 20 scientists were involved in these studies. The university might withdraw some of the Ph.D. and other academic degrees that were awarded on the basis of those studies.

The panel report said the irregularities were discovered in a review of 165 scientific articles published between 1996 and 2011. They covered bone formation mechanisms, hormone function processes and other research subjects.

The 43 articles contained 25 alterations, such as the use of duplicated or reversed images, and 26 instances of forgery, including composition of different images. The irregularities were intended to make the experimental results look better, according to the panel.

Images are considered central evidence for experimental results. Any alteration would undermine the trustworthiness of the scientific study.

Kato is believed to have let his subordinates check the veracity of the data details. The panel report quoted Kato as denying any direct involvement in the creation of the images, but pointed out his supervisory responsibility.

“He should be held responsible for hurting social confidence in research conducted at the University of Tokyo and for the immensely negative impact on the future of young scientists,” the panel said in the report.

The report is expected to be finalized following in-house corroboration procedures, such as interviews with individuals concerned.

If the irregularities are formally confirmed, the science ministry and other sponsors may consider discontinuing their research funding and calling for a partial or full return of the research expenses.

Confirmation of data alterations or forgery is difficult in the scientific community, which assumes researchers are being honest when they write their papers.

Although Kato has been held responsible for his leading position in his lab, a single, supervising professor alone would have problems trying to verify all data details, especially if the studies are done by a large number of researchers.

One idea being floated to ensure the veracity of research results is having scientists within the same group conduct peer checks.

(This article was compiled from reports by Shigeko Segawa and Senior Staff Writer Fumikazu Asai.)

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