By Irving Miramontes, University of Texas El Paso
In the past few months, the scientific community has been reminded of the importance of ethics. On the 30th of January, two Nature papers were published by scientists in the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan. These papers were on a novel technique in which cells could be converted to stem-like cells by inducing stress, the mechanism known as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) which rapidly became famous. The lead scientist, Haruko Obokata, had shown STAP had the simplicity to induce cell pluripotency and had the potential to change a variety of fields in research. However, soon after publication, problems were reported with several figures and reports of failed reproducibility. This striking news quickly filled the media. An inside investigation by RIKEN found that Obokata had altered images and committed scientific fraud. In late June, the two papers were retracted by Nature. On August 5, 2014, Deputy Director of RIKEN and co-author of the STAP papers, Yoshiki Sasai, was found dead in the RIKEN institute after committing suicide.
People may think that the suicide of Yoshiki Sasai was an overreaction; as young scientists, we can only learn from the mistakes of those before us. Fraud is something that is not taken lightly in the scientific community since there is a net of trust when publishing. Sasai had assisted writing both papers with Obokata; however, he was not found guilty of fraud. After the papers were found to be false, backlash fell upon both of them and all involved in the STAP publications. It is saddening that Dr. Sasai committed suicide, and we should all now focus on the importance of teaching and learning scientific ethics. The STAP papers were so controversial because not only was there scientific fraud, but there was also an oversight committed by the scientist in charge.
From personal experience, research integrity is not something that needs to be verbally enforced. When I first started as a freshman volunteer in my undergraduate career, I knew that it would be wrong to change my results to satisfy my mentor’s hypothesis. He always mentioned that if something went wrong, it was better to be honest and up front about it to avoid further problems. As part of a minority institution funded by the National Institutes of Health, training in ethics is required for all students. I know that this is not the case for many people, but there are resources available to aid in training scientists in scientific etiquette.
As trainees, I feel that it is our responsibility to be vigilant about these issues. Ethics in science aren’t always black and white – there are a lot of gray areas. If you are a professor, postdoc, grad student, or an undergraduate researcher, I kindly suggest that everyone talk to their research teams about scientific ethics in their next lab meeting if this topic hasn’t already been addressed. Teaching the future generations in scientific ethics will aid in reducing scientific fraud and make everyone aware of the possible repercussions. Below are a few links that provide scientific ethics trainings courtesy of the NIH and the University of New Hampshire: