Liz Wager: Research integrity—how can institutions balance discipline and support?

lizwagerThe suicide of Yoshiki Sasai is both tragic and shocking. Sasai was deputy director of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, and a co-author of reports in Nature on the phenomenon of “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” (or STAP), which were retracted. Although Sasai was not accused of misconduct himself, he was criticised in an institutional investigation for failing to check the data produced by his more junior colleague, Haruko Obokata.

I have been following this case closely, as just two weeks ago I gave a seminar on publication ethics at the RIKEN Institute in Tokyo. I also ran a workshop at Waseda University, where I arrived to discover that a committee was considering Obokata’s PhD dissertation that very afternoon.

Several people asked me what I thought about the case, but as the investigations were still under way, and the team attempting to replicate the findings had not yet reported, I declined to comment on whether this was fraud or honest error. However, I did praise the institution’s prompt and apparently thorough investigations. I also said that I thought it was a good thing the case was getting so much media attention, but now I am not so sure.

I remain convinced that secrecy is unhelpful, and that institutions should be open about cases of suspected and proved misconduct. Too many cases have been ignored or covered up, with fraudsters encouraged to leave quietly and seek another job, while whistleblowers are silenced.

I also believe that public debate is important, and that society needs to understand the pressures placed on researchers and the problems that occasionally arise. Serious misconduct is—fortunately—rare, but denying its existence is both naïve and unhelpful.

But the tragic death of Dr Sasai reminds us that transparency and scrutiny must be accompanied by support for the individuals affected. A few months ago, I spoke to the dean of a major West European institution about its policy of not releasing the names of individuals found guilty of misconduct to the media, even though affected journals were informed, and therefore this information was available in retraction notices.

He emphasised the dual responsibility of the institution not only to investigate (and rectify) misconduct, but also to protect its employees. In the case we were discussing, there had been extensive media coverage and the researcher was considered at risk of suicide (showing that this cannot be considered a peculiarly Japanese problem). I was impressed by this approach combining both discipline and care.

I will continue to call for greater transparency around research integrity, and, until that is the norm, will welcome informed debate. But this sad story from Japan should remind us of the harmful effects that such debate may have, which we should try to minimise. As with so many aspects of misconduct and integrity, it’s a difficult balance, but one that research institutions should strive to achieve.

Liz Wager PhD is a freelance medical writer, editor, and trainer. She was the chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (2009-2012).

Competing interests: The author has no further relevant interests to declare.