August 9, 2014

Some thoughts about the suicide of Yoshiki Sasai - Scientific American ( Doing Good Science )

In the previous post I suggested that it’s a mistake to try to understand scientific activity (including misconduct and culpable mistakes) by focusing on individual scientists, individual choices, and individual responsibility without also considering the larger community of scientists and the social structures it creates and maintains. That post was where I landed after thinking about what was bugging me about the news coverage and discussions about recent suicide of Yoshiki Sasai, deputy director of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, and coauthor of retracted papers on STAP cells.
I went toward teasing out the larger, unproductive pattern I saw, on the theory that trying a more productive pattern might help scientific communities do better going forward.
But this also means I didn’t say much about my particular response to Sasai’s suicide and the circumstances around it. I’m going to try to do that here, and I’m not going to try to fit every piece of my response into a larger pattern or path forward.
The situation in a nutshell:
Yoshiki Sasai worked with Haruko Obokata at the Riken Center on “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency”, a method by which exposing normal cells to a stress (like a mild acid) supposedly gave rise to pluripotent stem cells. It’s hard to know how closely they worked together on this; in the papers published on STAP. Obokata was the lead-author and Sasai was a coauthor. It’s worth noting that Obokata was some 20 years younger than Sasai, an up-and-coming researcher. Sasai was a more senior scientist, serving in a leadership position at the Riken Center and as Obokata’s supervisor there.
The papers were published in a high impact journal (Nature) and got quite a lot of attention. But then the findings came into question. Other researchers trying to reproduce the findings that had been reported in the papers couldn’t reproduce them. One of the images in the papers seemed to be a duplicate of another, which was fishy. Nature investigated, Riken investigated, the papers were retracted, Obokata continued to defend the papers and to deny any wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, a Riken investigation committee said “Sasai bore heavy responsibility for not confirming data for the STAP study and for Obokata’s misconduct”. This apparently had a heavy impact on Sasai:
Sasai’s colleagues at Riken said he had been receiving mental counseling since the scandal surrounding papers on STAP, or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, cells, which was lead-authored by Obokata, came to light earlier this year.
Kagaya [head of public relations at Riken] added that Sasai was hospitalized for nearly a month in March due to psychological stress related to the scandal, but that he “recovered and had not been hospitalized since.”
Finally, Sasai hanged himself in a Riken stairwell. One of the notes he left, addressed to Obokata, urged her to reproduce the STAP findings.
So, what is my response to all this?
I think it’s good when scientists take their responsibilities seriously, including the responsibility to provide good advice to junior colleagues.
I also think it’s good when scientists can recognize the limits. You can give very, very good advice — and explain with great clarity why it’s good advice — but the person you’re giving it to may still choose to do something else. It can’t be your responsibility to control another autonomous person’s actions.
I think trust is a crucial part of any supervisory or collaborative relationship. I think it’s good to be able to interact with coworkers with the presumption of trust.
I think it’s awful that it’s so hard to tell which people are not worthy of our trust before they’ve taken advantage of our trust to do something bad.
Finding the right balance between being hands-on and giving space is a challenge in the best of supervisory or mentoring relationships.
Bringing an important discovery with the potential to enable lots of research that could ultimately help lots of people to one’s scientific peers — and to the public — must feel amazing. Even if there weren’t a harsh judgment from the scientific community for retraction, I imagine that having to say, “We jumped the gun on the ‘discovery’ we told you about” would not feel good.
The danger of having your research center’s reputation tied to an important discovery is what happens if that discovery doesn’t hold up, whether because of misconduct or mistakes. And either way, this means that lots of hard work that is important in the building of the shared body of scientific knowledge (and lots of people doing that hard work) can become invisible.
Maybe it would be good to value that work on its own merits, independent of whether anyone else judged it important or newsworthy. Maybe we need to rethink the “big discoveries” and “important discoverers” way of thinking about what makes scientific work or a research center good.
Figuring out why something went wrong is important. When the something that went wrong includes people making choices, though, this always seems to come down to assigning blame. I feel like that’s the wrong place to stop.
I feel like investigations of results that don’t hold up, including investigations that turn up misconduct, should grapple with the question of how can we use what we found here to fix what went wrong? Instead of just asking, “Whose fault was this?” why not ask, “How can we address the harm? What can we learn that will help us avoid this problem in the future?”
I think it’s a problem when a particular work environment makes the people in it anxious all the time.
I think it’s a problem when being careful feels like an unacceptable risk because it slows you down. I think it’s a problem when being first feels more important than being sure.
I think it’s a problem when a mistake of judgment feels so big that you can’t imagine a way forward from it. So disastrous that you can’t learn something useful from it. So monumental that it makes you feel like not existing.
I feel like those of us who are still here have a responsibility to pay attention.
We have a responsibility to think about the impacts of the ways science is done, valued, celebrated, on the human beings who are doing science — and not just on the strongest of those human beings, but also on the ones who may be more vulnerable.
We have a responsibility to try to learn something from this.
I don’t think what we should learn is not to trust, but how to be better at balancing trust and accountability.
I don’t think what we should learn is not to take the responsibilities of oversight seriously, but to put them in perspective and to mobilize more people in the community to provide more support in oversight and mentoring.
Can we learn enough to shift away from the Important New Discovery model of how we value scientific contributions? Can we learn enough that cooperation overtakes competition, that building the new knowledge together and making sure it holds up is more important than slapping someone’s name on it? I don’t know.
I do know that, if the pressures of the scientific career landscape are harder to navigate for people with consciences and easier to navigate for people without consciences, it will be a problem for all of us.

August 8, 2014

Yoshiki Sasai: A tribute to an outstanding scientist - The Guardian

The scientific community was shocked to hear of the death earlier this week of stem cell researcher Yoshiki Sasai, who apparently committed suicide in the wake of a high profile case of scientific fraud at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, where he had worked.
Two papers from the RIKEN CDB, co-authored by Sasai and published in the journal Nature in late January, described a simple method for converting mature cells into embryonic stem cells, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP).
It seemed to good to be true – and it was. The findings were challenged and other labs tried but failed to replicate the method. Lead researcher Haruko Obokata was found guilty of scientific misconduct and in July both of the papers were retracted. Sasai himself was cleared of any involvement in the misconduct, but Obokata did the work under his supervision, and so he was criticised for oversights while the papers were being written up.
I had been working on a feature article about Sasai’s own work for Mosaic, and travelled to Japan earlier this year to visit his lab, as part of my reporting for the article. By coincidence, I arrived the day the STAP method hit the news - the Daily Telegraph had accidentally published their story about it too early - and so found myself competing with several film crews for his attention.
As a result, my visit to the lab was cut short, and I spent far less time there than had been planned, but nevertheless I managed to interview Sasai and two of his colleagues and take a look around.
The story was originally scheduled for publication on 26th August, and my editors at the Wellcome Trust have decided to go ahead and publish it on the scheduled date. They felt that it should mention of these tragic events, without letting them overshadow the real focus of the story, and so, apart from several small changes to the main story, and the addition of a brief epilogue, it is unchanged.
I spent very little time with Sasai but he struck me as a very proud man, and the remarkable work being done in his lab gave him every reason to be, so I do not doubt reports that he had felt “deeply ashamed” about the STAP cell papers and the disrepute they had brought to RIKEN, in the weeks leading up to his death. During this time, an independent committee had recommended that the CDB be dismantled, and Sasai’s mental and physical health had by then suffered considerably, so I feel doubly honoured to have visited him there when I did.
Sadly, many of the news stories about his death have focused on the unfortunate circumstances that mired the last few months of his life. We would like to send our deepest condolences to Sasai’s family and friends and hope that that the Mosaic story will serve as a sensitive and timely tribute to the pioneering work of an outstanding scientist.
This is an unedited version of an article I wrote for the Mosaic blog.

August 5, 2014

Researcher’s death shocks Japan - NATURE News

Yoshiki Sasai, one of Japan’s top stem-cell researchers, died this morning (5 August) in an apparent suicide. He was 52.
Sasai, who worked at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology (CDB) in Kobe, Japan, was famous for his ability to coax embryonic stem cells to differentiate into other cell types. In 2011, he stunned the world by mimicking an early stage in the development of the eye — a three-dimensional structure called an optical cupin vitro, using embryonic stem cells.
But lately he had been immersed in controversy over two papers, published in Nature in January, that claimed a simple method of creating embryonic-like cells, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). Various problems in the papers led to a judgement of scientific misconduct for their lead author, Haruko Obokata, also of the CDB. The papers were retracted on 2 July.
Sasai, who was a co-author of both papers, was cleared of any direct involvement in the misconduct. But he has been harshly criticized for failure of oversight in helping to draft the paper. Some critics, often on the basis of unsupported conjecture, alleged deeper involvement of  the CDB. An independent committee recommended on 12 June that the CDB, where Sasai was a vice-director, be dismantled. Sasai had been instrumental in launching the CDB and helped it to develop into one of the world’s premier research centres.
Just after 9 a.m., Sasai was found hanging in a stairwell of the Institute of Biomedical Research and Innovation, next to the CDB, where he also had a laboratory. He was pronounced dead just after 11 a.m., according to reports by Japanese media.  A bag found at the scene contained three letters: one addressed to CDB management, one to his laboratory members and one to Obokata.
In a brief statement released this morning, RIKEN president Ryoji Noyori mourned the death of the pioneering researcher. “The world scientific community has lost an irreplaceable scientist,” he said.

July 15, 2014

Taiwan’s education minister resigns in wake of SAGE peer review scandal - Retraction Watch

Taiwan’s education minister, Chiang Wei-ling, whose name appeared on several of 60 retracted articles by Peter Chen — apparently the architect of a peer review and citation syndicate we were first to report on last week — has resigned over the publishing scandal.
According to the University World News:
Chiang said in a statement that the decision to resign was made to uphold his own reputation and avoid unnecessary disturbance of the work of the education ministry, after the incident ignited a wave of public criticism.
The UWN reports that Chaing’s resignation on Monday came after Taiwan’s premier, Jiang Yi-huah, instructed the Ministry of Science and Technology to investigate the Chen case.
What’s more, according to the UWN — in news that, we humbly submit, hammers home the point of our New York Times op-ed last Friday:
The Ministry of Science said this week that it may have funded the research for 40 of Peter Chen’s questionable papers amounting to some NT$5.08 million (US$169,164), according to Lin Yi-Bing, vice-minister of science and technology.
He said in remarks released last Sunday that if Chen was found to have violated academic ethics, the science ministry would demand a return of any research funds awarded to him and bar him for life from applying for such funding.
The relationship between Chiang and Peter Chen is a bit complicated, but may hinge on the researcher’s twin brother C.W. Chen, the UWN reports.
Five of the 60 papers, written by CW Chen – Peter’s twin brother – bore Chiang’s name as a co-writer but also listed Peter Chen as one of the writers.
Chiang was CW Chen’s former thesis advisor. In a statement issued this week CW Chen acknowledged that the papers in question bore Chiang’s name without Chiang having been informed in advance because they were a continuation of research on subjects related to his thesis. “It was my decision,” CW Chen said.
He said he had also sought the opinion of his twin brother on some of the papers and therefore had listed him as a co-author but had not informed Chiang. His academic advisor and his brother had never met to discuss the papers, CW Chen said.
At an earlier press conference, CW Chen insisted that the minister did not have any links to his brother. Peter Chen and the minister had met on only two occasions, once in 2004 when CW Chen graduated from the doctoral programme at National Central University where the minister was teaching, and at a science forum.

July 10, 2014

Scholarly journal retracts 60 articles, smashes ‘peer review ring’ - The Washington Post

Every now and then a scholarly journal retracts an article because of errors or outright fraud. In academic circles, and sometimes beyond, each retraction is a big deal.
Now comes word of a journal retracting 60 articles at once.
The reason for the mass retraction is mind-blowing: A “peer review and citation ring” was apparently rigging the review process to get articles published.
You’ve heard of prostitution rings, gambling rings and extortion rings. Now there’s a “peer review ring.”
The publication is the Journal of Vibration and Control (JVC). It publishes papers with names like “Hydraulic engine mounts: a survey” and “Reduction of wheel force variations with magnetorheological devices.”
The field of acoustics covered by the journal is highly technical:
Analytical, computational and experimental studies of vibration phenomena and their control. The scope encompasses all linear and nonlinear vibration phenomena and covers topics such as: vibration and control of structures and machinery, signal analysis, aeroelasticity, neural networks, structural control and acoustics, noise and noise control, waves in solids and fluids and shock waves.
JVC is part of the SAGE group of academic publications.
Here’s how it describes its peer review process:
[The journal] operates under a conventional single-blind reviewing policy in which the reviewer’s name is always concealed from the submitting author.
All manuscripts are reviewed initially by one of the Editors and only those papers that meet the scientific and editorial standards of the journal, and fit within the aims and scope of the journal, will be sent for peer review.  Generally, reviews from two independent referees are required.
An announcement from SAGE published July 8 explained what happened, albeit somewhat opaquely.
In 2013, the editor of JVC, Ali H. Nayfeh, became aware of people using “fabricated identities” to manipulate an online system called SAGE Track by which scholars review the work of other scholars prior to publication.
Attention focused on a researcher named Peter Chen of the National Pingtung University of Education (NPUE) in Taiwan and “possibly other authors at this institution.”
After a 14-month investigation, JVC determined the ring involved “aliases” and fake e-mail addresses of reviewers — up to 130 of them — in an apparently successful effort to get friendly reviews of submissions and as many articles published as possible by Chen and his friends. “On at least one occasion, the author Peter Chen reviewed his own paper under one of the aliases he created,” according to the SAGE announcement.
The statement does not explain how something like this happens. Did the ring invent names and say they were scholars? Did they use real names and pretend to be other scholars? Doesn’t anyone check on these things by, say, picking up the phone and calling the reviewer?
In any case, SAGE and Nayfeh confronted Chen to give him an “opportunity to address the accusations of misconduct,” the statement said, but were not satisfied with his responses.
In May, “NPUE informed SAGE and JVC that Peter Chen had resigned from his post on 2 February 2014.”
Each of the 60 retracted articles had at least one author and/or one reviewer “who has been implicated in the peer review” ring, said a separate notice issued by JVC.
Efforts by The Washington Post to locate and contact Chen for comment were unsuccessful.
The whole story is described in a publication called Retraction Watch” under the headline: “SAGE Publications busts ‘peer review and citation ring.’”
“This one,” it said, “deserves a ‘wow.’”
Update: Some additional information from the SAGE statement: “As the SAGE investigation drew to a close, in May 2014 Professor Nayfeh’s retirement was announced and he resigned his position as Editor-in-Chief of JVC….Three senior editors and an additional 27 associate editors with expertise and prestige in the field have been appointed to assist with the day-to-day running of the JVC peer review process. Following Professor Nayfeh’s retirement announcement, the external senior editorial team will be responsible for independent editorial control for JVC.”
Note to readers: Thanks for pointing out my grammatical error. No excuses.
There’s a follow to this story here.

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