Why Do Scientists Commit Fraud?

The latest stem cell research misconduct investigation ends in tragedy.

Haruko Obokata.
Haruko Obokata, a researcher at Riken in Japan, wipes away tears during a press conference in Osaka on April 9, 2014. She has been found guilty of falsifying data in papers she wrote about a simple new method for creating stem cells.

Photo by Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

One of the biggest science scandals in recent history took place at one of Japan’s most prestigious research institutions, the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe. Over the past several months, a research misconduct investigation has focused on two papers about a simple new method for creating stem cells. The papers describing the method, called stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, were published in the prestigious journal Nature in January to much fanfare. But they were retracted in July after Nature discovered that the papers included plagiarized writing, misidentified images, and misreported data.

Haruko Obokata, the lead author, who performed the studies and wrote the manuscripts, was found guilty of falsifying data. Biologist Yoshiki Sasai, leader of the Riken research group, was a co-author on both papers. According to the Japan Times, he had been responsible for overseeing Obokata’s research, and he was criticized for his poor supervision. During the investigation, both Obokata and Sasai were hospitalized for stress. This week, Sasai committed suicide at the Riken Center.

This tragedy is the latest to rock the stem cell research community, a field that has been plagued by accusations of fraud and by publication retractions over the past decade. The most high-profile fraud case involved South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk, who made headlines in 2006 when he was found guilty of falsifying data from two papers published in Science. After narrowly escaping jail time, he quietly returned to research, and he has published more than 100 articles since he made up his data. In 2012, an anonymous tipster exposed errors in Seoul National University stem cell researcher Kang Soo-kyung’s work, leading to the retraction of four papers; earlier this year, the University of Düsseldorf began an investigation into stem cell researcher Bodo-Eckehard Strauer’s work on bone-marrow cells; and just last week, a 2010 Nature paper on using cells from human testes to make stem cells was retracted because the images “made the data appear more robust than newly conducted experiments show.”

Overall, academic fraud is rare, which makes it all the more shocking when a major case is uncovered. To the public, it may seem mind-boggling that scientists would go to such lengths to deceive. In an ideal world, scientists work together to make incremental discoveries that add to the body of knowledge in a field and are recognized for quality work. In reality, the world of science can be cutthroat and isolating, with little oversight. Stem cell research is certainly not the only research field with a fraud problem, but it has all the right elements to motivate dishonesty: It’s a cutting-edge field with the potential to discover treatments for human diseases; it attracts highly competitive people who are all scrambling to make the next big discovery; and that discovery must be made, written, and published before any competitors can catch up.

Add to that an academic culture that places ever-rising pressure on researchers to churn out publications in order to land jobs or tenure—especially publications in high-impact journals like Nature and Science—and you begin to see why researchers resort to cutting corners or massaging their data. Earlier this year, Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman spoke out against publishing in prestigious journals, saying that they contributed to unhealthy research practices, and advised people to boycott them. Barring acceptance at a major journal, academics must still publish somewhere, and this pressure has created a market for yet another type of academic fraud: fake journals.

In a study of research misconduct, researchers found that big life events can also lead scientists to the temptation of cheating. People found guilty of fraud reported that they felt that changes in their personal lives—the death of a loved one, family expectations, a new baby—contributed to their dishonesty. The results were self-reported, so it’s unclear how much of a cause-and-effect relationship these events really had in fraudsters’ decisions to cheat, but it gives us a glimpse into how fatigue and stress can play into academic misconduct.

Regardless of their motivations, fraudsters’ actions have real consequences not only for their careers, but also for their colleagues’. When someone is found guilty of fraud in a publication, suspicion usually extends to the researcher’s entire body of work—and inevitably, co-authors are caught in the crossfire. Investigations can be lengthy and disruptive, as officials search offices and old data files for evidence. Yet often these co-authors may not be involved in the actual fraud—as many researchers know, authorship on a paper often reflects only nominal contributions, especially when it comes to ambitious projects in competitive labs. Research group heads are often added to the paper for contributing their labs’ resources, their intellectual expertise, or their edits on a manuscript, but they are rarely involved with the nitty-gritty details of data collection and analysis, which are the meat of papers.

This seems to be the case with Sasai’s involvement in the two retracted Nature papers: He was the head of his research group, and the Wall Street Journal reported that “he said he was asked to join the research project in its final stage and was mainly responsible for editing and revising the papers.” Co-authors should be vigilant in evaluating their colleagues’ work, but it seems harsh to blame colleagues for poor oversight in cases where one team member was clearly trying to deceive them. If we’re to blame co-authors for being too easily deceived, we should also wonder why peer reviewers who read and vet manuscripts before publication don’t catch the same errors.

In coming days, there will surely be much speculation about Sasai’s mental state and the role this fraud investigation played in the last months of his life. It is a shame that most of the discussion around his impressive career studying fundamental questions about neurons and stem cells will center around a scandal involving only two of his many papers.