The Problems of Science Management: Riken Is No Isolated Case

Science Technology Society

The recent revelations concerning irregularities in papers published by a number of researchers affiliated with the research institute Riken have caused a rare surge of media interest in the state of affairs of science in Japan. In fact, the situation has exposed problems not only in Japan’s scientific establishment, but also in science and research management in general.

Scandal Highlights Multiple Issues

Media coverage has narrowly focused on just how many of the 14 researchers involved in the research are responsible for misconduct, including plagiarism and the mishandling or manipulation of data. However, much broader issues are at stake here: First, to a large degree, the media themselves are the problem. Second, the incident clearly exposes problems with the system of peer review, which is supposed to ensure the quality of publications in so-called peer-reviewed journals, such as Nature. And third, society at large lacks an exact understanding about what science actually is and how scientific institutions (including research institutes and scientific journals) function.

Regarding the first issue, we must note that the media hype in January 2014—when the papers on STAP (stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) cells authored by a group of 14 scientists were published in the prestigious journal Nature—was completely out of proportion. The media seemed to have found a story with heroes. Pride on its leading role in science is an important part of Japan’s postwar identity, so the story was easy to sell. However, the media focused narrowly on the heroic part of the narrative; namely, on articles being published in a well-known journal by a group of relatively young—and thus promising—researchers. In the process, they forgot to explain to the audience how science actually works.

As crazy as the media hype was in January, equally deep was the disillusionment when doubts regarding the content of the papers emerged. The media should be more careful with this kind of short-sighted hurrah coverage, because it can easily backfire. And journalists, most of whom have university degrees, should know that it is a completely normal process—and anything but unexpected—that an academic article should be scrutinized by one’s contemporaries after it is published. Obviously, the majority of fellow scientists will only see an article after it is published, and they will analyze and either verify or disprove the results presented. So, in science, criticism and scrutiny of research results are to be expected, as is the discovery of sometimes inconvenient truths.

The Popular Myth of Exact Science

However, this kind of incident should not even have happened in the first place, particularly not in a prestigious, peer-reviewed journal like Nature. It was the responsibility of the peer reviewers (established scholars in the field to whom such journals send received manuscripts for review) to at the very least uncover inconsistencies or instances of plagiarism and scrutinize the manuscripts for their quality, for adequate structure, for the authors’ writing skills, and so forth. That a journal as established as Nature was incapable of even finding instances of plagiarism in the submitted articles demonstrates how flawed the process of peer review is.

Although the process is supposed to be anonymous, it never really is. The number of scientists conducting research on stem cells, and on STAP cells in particular, is probably not too high, so having an unusually large group of 14 authors for a pair of articles is almost a guarantee that the peer reviewers will know who the authors are. If the scientist or group submitting a manuscript is lucky, the peer reviewer may recognize the author(s), take a sympathetic stance, and judge that the article should be accepted for publication, sometimes without seriously scrutinizing its content. In the worst-case scenario, on the other hand, the peer reviewer might know who the author is, not be sympathetic toward them, and reject the article, even if it is of outstanding quality. Reasons to reject an article can always be found.

This leads to the third, larger, issue involved, namely the understanding in society at large of what science actually is. I believe that part of the reason the outrage in the media is so intense is that there is still a widespread belief in the existence of exact science. Many people divide the academic establishment into science and humanities, considering the natural sciences to be exact but research into the humanities to be an endeavor that does not necessarily involve exactness, nor even objectivity. (In Japanese, the distinction is actually less emphasized, since we speak of “natural sciences” [自然科学] and “human sciences” [人文科学].)

However, the ongoing Riken case shows that there is no such thing as exact science. Given the large amount of funding involved in natural science research, as well as the potential media attention, the probability of data being manipulated is in fact much higher in natural sciences than in the humanities. But funding is not the only issue at stake. As we know today, in the nineteenth century, the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel (1822–84), discovered the laws of heredity, although the data he recorded from his experiments was flawed. Today we know that he could not possibly have come to the conclusions he did by way of the experiments described in his publications. However, because he knew he was on the right track, researchers today agree that he was influenced by what we call the “confirmation bias.” Probably unconsciously, he chose a setup for his experiments that would lead to a higher probability of obtaining the results he expected—although there is also a theory that one of his assistants simply manipulated the experiments. It is a fine line between a confirmation bias which unconsciously influences a scientist’s research and the deliberate mishandling of data, but there can be no doubt that the natural sciences are not as exact, nor completely objective, as is widely believed.

Much Room for Improvement

Another serious problem emerging from the current Riken case is the issue of plagiarism, the theft of intellectual property. It is not clear yet how serious the plagiarism charges are, but plagiarism is a serious problem in contemporary science and education worldwide. In Germany, for example, within the last three years, two government ministers have had to resign because their doctoral dissertations were revealed to include plagiarized information. One of this author’s students recently became a victim of plagiarism when his thesis was submitted to a US university and eventually uploaded to the Internet. That plagiarism is a serious violation of rules—not to speak of the moral issues involved—is something nowadays taught at the undergraduate level of university education, and many universities worldwide use anti-plagiarism tools like Turnitin, but it seems like there is still a lot of room for improvement even at prestigious scientific institutions like Riken or Waseda University, both of which are involved in the ongoing case. It is extremely important to use all means available to raise awareness among students and young researchers of the fact that plagiarism is more than a little bit of cheating: It is theft.

To sum up, this ongoing incident is not an isolated case of a couple of problematic manuscripts. It is the exposure of deep-seated problems in science in general. Media coverage would do better to focus on these problems than on the potential faults of individual researchers. Unfortunately, though, due to the hierarchic structure of academia and the short-lived nature of media reporting, it is likely that only a couple of symbolic steps will be taken to solve the current set of issues, and that no in-depth investigation will follow.

(Originally written in English on March 27, 2014.)

▼Further reading

After Riken Confirms Misconduct in STAP Cell Papers, Obokata Haruko Fights Back

RIKEN media nature Saaler Sven science STAP