Holding institutions responsible for research misconduct: The recent case of a death of stem cell scientist

Author: Guest, 09/02/14

Written by Dr. Zubin Master, Assistant Professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute, Albany Medical College and Research Associate at the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute. This article is being published simultaneously on the Alden March Bioethics Institute blog, the Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell blog and Signals Blog. 

Scientist Yoshiki Sasai, age 52, committed suicide and was found dead on August 5, 2014. Sasai was deputy director of the Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) at RIKEN in Kobe, Japan, and coauthor on two recently retracted Nature papers about an easier way to make induced pluripotent stem cells. The papers were retracted due to duplication and manipulation of images done by the main researcher and lead author on the two papers – Haruko Obokata. Although cleared of any direct involvement, Sasai was under immense pressure and heavily scrutinized by the media, public and peers. This involved speculation about Sasai’s intentions to orchestrate a media frenzy, and for being overly ambitious and motivated to win future grants overlooking the integrity of the science.

According to colleagues at RIKEN, Sasai was receiving counseling since the scandal broke headlines and he was also hospitalized for about a month in March. He was found hanging in a stairwell of a neighboring building and beside him were three letters addressed to CDB management, his laboratory, and Obokata. On August 12, Kazuhiro Nakamura, the family lawyer explained the contents of Sasai’s suicide note left for the family. Sasai was “worn out by the unjust bashing in the mass media and the responsibility he felt towards RIKEN and his laboratory”. But unsubstantiated claims in the media were not the only source of stress for Sasai. The speculation in tabloids might have also influenced how RIKEN and other colleagues behaved towards Sasai. In June, a report released by an independent RIKEN reform committee criticized CDB leaders for hyping the science and did not interview Sasai about such accusations. Their final recommendation was to dismantle CDB. According to the family lawyer, this was a tremendous shock for Sasai.

In this blog, I want to discuss the responsibilities research institutions have over research integrity and misconduct. Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiments and other social psychology research has taught us that ethical behavior is not only shaped by dispositional attribution (an internal moral character), but it is also influenced by many situational (environmental) features. Similarly, our understanding about the causes of research misconduct is shifting from the idea of a few “bad apples” to the realization that the immense pressure to publish, translate research findings, and poor institutional support are factors that influence research misconduct. This is not to excuse misbehavior by researchers; rather, it is about moral responsibility, and research institutions are also accountable in cases of research misconduct. While scholars on research integrity are aware of the responsibility of research institutions, the institutions themselves have taken few measures to promote research integrity and prevent misconduct; they remain virtually blameless in high profile cases of research misconduct. The tragic death of Dr. Yoshiki Sasai should cause us to consider the role of institutions. How well do research institutions handle investigations? Do they take measures to protect researchers and others involved in the case? How do institutions promote research integrity and prevent misconduct? I think the short answer to these questions is that institutions still do the minimum to promote the responsible conduct of research and likely react punitively to individual researchers by removing the bad apples and then taking corrective measures. This myopic view of research misconduct needs to change, and institutions need to be held morally accountable along with scientists who commit fraud.

The Case

There has been no shortage of news surrounding misconduct in stem cell research. I have given lectures to science trainees in stem cell research and blogged about several relatively recent scandals. The pattern of misconduct seen in stem cell research might be due to the heightened attention it receives in the media and interest by the public. Moreover, ways to detect misconduct are becoming widely used by journals and other scientists, and publishing in top-tier journals like Science and Nature certainly draws attention.

In January of this year, Haruko Obokata in the CDB, RIKEN reported that she was able to convert mouse cells to a pluripotent state simply by exposing cells to stress, the procedure called stimulus triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). Soon after its publication, allegations of plagiarism, and figure manipulation and duplication were reported. Additionally, other researchers were unable to reproduce the STAP experiments. In April, an investigative committee at RIKEN found Obokata had committed research misconduct. While she admitted to being sloppy, Obokata continued to defend the results. The investigative report also concluded that while Sasai was not directly involved in misconduct, he bore “heavy responsibility”. A reform committee, chaired by a University of Tokyo emeritus professor Teruo Kishi, faults Sasai and a former CDB researcher, now at another university, for accepting Obokata’s data without question or further examination. The reform committee found that inadequate oversight extended to the highest leadership of CDB due to the desire of a major breakthrough and the committee recommended that CDB be completely reformed.

It is evident that Yoshiki Sasai, a leader in the scientific community and at CDB, was under massive pressure. I will neither speculate on the toll this incident had on Sasai or whether the investigation was handled well and the recommendations sound. Instead, I want to shift focus to look more at the research environment scientists work in more generally and consider what research institutions do (or can do) to promote research integrity.

Shifting the Culture of Science

The espoused norms of science we learn in the past seem incongruent with current practices today. The ideals of science – openly sharing materials/methods, being motivated by discovery and not personal gain, judging one’s own work and others rigorously through strict standards – are being replaced with secrecy, self-promotion, and fierce competition. Competition in science creates a pressure to publish, and perhaps more recently to translate and commercialize research. A recent survey by New Scientist reported that of 111 stem cell scientists who responded, 56% felt stem cell research was put under more intense scrutiny than other areas of biomedical science, and of those that replied positively, 56% said that this affects their work. Moreover, almost 17% of the stem cell researchers reported that they felt pressure to submit a paper for publication they believed was incomplete or needed verification. Combining the pressure to produce results in a hyper competitive and bleak job market creates a stressful environment for anyone. It remains empirically unclear however, whether such a competitive environment is a recipe for research misconduct. Given the culture of science today, what are institutions doing to create a healthier environment?

Globally, several research institutions promote research integrity but differ in their approach. Some have robust policies, training, and provide resources while I suspect many only have a suite of policies and a non-transparent mechanism to address allegations of misconduct. I believe research institutions can do several things to promote research integrity and help prevent misconduct.

For starters, institutions can raise awareness and help promote a culture of research integrity by educating trainees, faculty, and research administrators and staff. Education can provide scientists with the tools they need to deal with ethical issues in a constructive manner when they arise. Michael Kalichman explains that the primary goal of education should be to “foster a research culture in which conversations about the responsible conduct of research are expected and acceptable”. Efforts to restore and rehabilitate researchers found to engage in misbehavior is likely going to incorporate education as part of the program. Education about the responsible conduct of research needs to be more than a minimum requirement scientists have to undertake and institutions are obligated to offer.

In addition to fostering a culture of integrity, some scholars advocate that research institutions can perform random or for-cause (when misconduct is suspected) data audits. However, it seems scientists have little appetite for such audits because they fear it would inhibit scientific freedom, and be burdensome and costly. While there is virtually no evidence to demonstrate whether such a policy decreases research misbehavior within an institution, it does not have to be a taxing effort on scientists or research administration.

Institutions should also make transparent a mechanism of how allegations should be handled, but also to provide resources like an ombudsperson as trusted broker for researchers to confidentially discuss potential problems amicably prior to raising a formal allegation requiring investigation. And if a formal investigation is needed, institutions must make serious efforts to ensure there are no reprisals against the complainant, witnesses, investigators, or the accused. In cases where scientists are under tremendous duress during an investigation, appropriate accommodations for researchers should be made.

UC San Diego is one example of an institution that has made significant efforts to promote the responsible conduct of research by having several research ethics policies, a hotline to report research fraud, a transparent mechanism to address potential allegations, and provides courses, seminars and resources to faculty and students. The tools are available – university and college administrators need to seek them out and implement them at their respective institutions.

Empirical research on institutional integrity climates is beginning to be performed. While journals, funding agencies, integrity scholars, scientific societies and other players can all do their part to promote a culture of research integrity, research institutes are well poised to promote integrity not only within their organization, but also to the larger institution of science. Research institutions should do more than simply remove the bad apples as they too bear some moral responsibility over research misconduct.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Dr. Paul Knoepfler, Ms. Lisa Willemse, and Ms. Tina Muratovic for helpful feedback.

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Signals accepts guest blog posts on topics relevant to stem cells and regenerative medicine, as well as submissions for its Right Turn Friday feature. See http://www.signalsblog.ca/about/ for more information. The opinions, accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made in guest posts are the responsibility of the author only and not the editor of Signals or CCRM, publisher of Signals. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with the author.
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