Obokata Haruko: Shoddy scientist or scapegoat?

photo_2I know very little about lab sciences. A few months ago, Obokata Haruko, graduate of Waseda University and researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, discovered something “too good to be true.” She found a way of creating pluripotent cells, that is stem cells which can become anything, without the awful side effect of inducing cancer in a vertebrate host. Though my knowledge of such matters is sadly lacking, from what I understand, virae are usually used to induce the cell to convert, which can make the cell unstable, and likely to turn cancerous. Obokata discovered that the cell could be manipulated merely by stressing them with pressure.

The results followed the peer review process, were rejected once, and, after revising and resubmitting, were eventually published in Nature. Soon thereafter, the results were challenged and it was discovered that the images accompanying the paper did not represent the content of the paper and had likely been lifted from her doctoral dissertation. Obokata was disgraced.

Yesterday, an article appeared which claimed that even more improprieties were found in Obokata’s doctoral thesis and that she has formally requested that her dissertation be withdrawn. She supposedly lifted portions of her introduction from the NIH website without attribution and had doctored images. Even some of the chapter bibliographies were suspicious:

Each chapter in the dissertation has a separate bibliography. For chapter 3, there is a bibliography of 38 references even though there are no footnotes in that chapter. The bibliography contains the authors of the material referred to, the title, the journal and the pages on which the original article appeared.

However, the bibliography in question is almost exactly the same as the first 38 items in a bibliography containing 53 reference materials that was published in 2010 in a medical journal by researchers working at a Taiwanese hospital.

It is entirely possible that Obokata is a shoddy researcher. Actually, it’s quite likely given the mountain of evidence against her. What isn’t clear, is how her mentors allowed her train wreck of a career to happen. Research doesn’t occur in a box. I’d certainly be entirely happy if no one at all ever looked at my dissertation again (outside of the published papers from it). But, one would assume that the most egregious of infractions would be caught by her committee members (and her co-authors) before the work goes into print.

It’s worth nothing that Obokata, like a lot of academics, is quite odd. She had her lab repainted pink and yellow, and would don a Japanese smock more characteristic of kindergarten teachers rather than a traditional lab coat. Though I encourage such behavior, I’m not sure that her eccentric style is doing her career any favors at this point.

This incident brings more than a few conflicting ideas to mind.

First, Japan is a terrible, awful place to be a woman in a professional position. In fact, Japan is pretty much just a terrible place to be a woman at all. In terms of women’s empowerment, wages, education and political representation, Japan is 101st out of 135 countries, well under less developed countries like Kenya, El Salvador, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and among the worst in all of Asia.

Once, I remember when I was visiting Japan, a tenured faculty member who happened to be female was tasked with serving us men tea. I was enraged.

Though Obokata is likely less than professional, professionals are made, not born. I can imagine that, given her reproductive capabilities, her mentors refused to take her seriously, and slacked on their most important job, which was to create and nurture a responsible and talented scientist.

Of course, Obokata, though likely a victim of shoddy mentoring, has to shoulder some of the blame. Shoddy mentors create shoddy students, but shoddy students still have to take responsibility for their own actions. But I can’t help but thinking that it’s interesting that a young female is taking the heat for what should be a collective fuck up.

Obokata is currently being eviscerated in the press. After making numerous appearances on television as an eccentric though brilliant scientist, her downfall has brought out the worst. Many are alleging that Obokata slept with her mentors to attain her position (despite being trained at Harvard), following a narrative that women can’t attain privileged positions without having sex with someone. The vile depths of the interweb are even speculating that Obokata will start making porn, a common standby career for fallen actresses and swimsuit idols, again following a narrative that women are never degraded enough.

Does Obokata deserve the brutal punishment she’s receiving? While scientists need to held accountable for their work, given the amount of shoddy research out there, I would say that Obokata is probably being treated rather unfairly. It would seem though, that the extreme nature of her punishment is due to her gender, her age and the fact that she was unlucky enough to appear on Japanese television.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

13 responses to “Obokata Haruko: Shoddy scientist or scapegoat?”

  1. Ziggie says :

    Well this was certainly much more than a shoddy research as she shot for fame with these fabricated articles. I agree that there are significant number of shoddy research papers out there but I have not seen any case which brags all the way to Nature without being questioned. This once again raises the concerns about the corruption in the research community, and how papers are accepted in high impact factor journals and other magazines in general. I have seen many similar cases but this is certainly one of the most extreme examples considering the awful plagiarism in her thesis as well. Hope it opens lots of eyes on the deeper roots of this problem including corruption in science.

    • Pete Larson says :

      Yes, agreed. I was hesitant to call her out on publicity mongering. It’s hard to tell if her eccentricities and the plagiarism are merely a cheap means of earning some fame or if she is just simply odd and truly a bad scientist. But you are correct, no one should have ever let it get all the way to Nature. Knowing science’s particular affinity to the cult of personality makes this incident particularly distressing, though.

  2. Ziggie says :

    Also, I have to add that there is another group of researchers which have gone too far on this case while they don’t have a good record on such incidences at all. It’s better they spend more time on the serious flaws of their own research papers than bugging another human in such a harsh way.

  3. Thurston says :

    I worked in a lab with a Chinese professor where there was a lot of pressure to produce specific results using specific methods. If the experiments did not work it was our fault. As a microscopes I was often tasked with getting “good” images of samples without knowing the whole history. A Japanese woman gave me samples and said she prepared them using an aqueous method (water based) rather than a method that utilized an organic solvent. I took images of the samples after which the women left to peruse and academic position in Japan. After she left I was required to repeat the results which I could never do. This became a point of contention with my boss who told me I was not a very good researcher. It wasn’t until I went through her samples and notes and found that she had given me the wrong sample that my advising professor finally backed off. The problem was that she was up for a professorship and needed the publication. He knew this and wouldn’t give his recommendation unless she had a certain number of papers published. Consequently she gave me the wrong sample and then said it was the correct one. Now it could that she honestly gave me the wrong sample… but the difference between the two were striking. Now I could hold that against her if that was the only person who had exhibited questionable research in that group. I had other papers, one that has well over 1000 citations, that after I gave the picture to a post doc, he photoshoped the image. This was because I could not identify some features, so instead of admitting that these features were not identified, he erased the features. In my naivety I saw him do this but figured since he was a post doc and I was a second year grad student that this was not out of the norm.

    Only later did I put it together that they were under huge amounts of pressure from our boss to produce. They were told what experiments to run and if the experiments didn’t work, it was their fault. So in order not to be faulty in the eyes of their superior, they corrected the data. There were many more examples of this type of situation occurring in that lab. The people who performed well in his lab then went on to obtain their own professorships. Pete I think you are right that pressures from superiors can lead people (especially females in Asian culture) to produce fictitious data. Though I do not think that should absolve them of commuting fraud. Her mentors should have their positions stripped from them for their part they played in this situation. Often bad results have a persistence in the literature even though they may have been disproved. The damage can keep advancement of ideas back for decades as NIH or other grant review boards defend bad work and prevent alternative methods from gaining money.

    • Ziggie says :

      You are absolutely right. This phenomenon has multiple causes including the pressure from supervisor to only report good feeling results. Although I do not think it’s the main factor for this particular case. But adding to your point, for instance, JACS now publishes over 3000 papers annually. If all of them were honest and true progress, I would say our progress in science would be at least 10-fold faster! One of the first things you must learn in the beginning of grad study is to distinguish between fake papers and the strong works! Sometimes, if you cannot do it, almost 1-2 years of your experiments would fail! This becomes so frustrating, adding your own supervisor pressure, you can imagine the domino effect. I have seen some folks that quit their PhD for these reasons…

    • Dr. No says :

      Global Warming. Phony research. Must produce evidence of a crisis to continue to receive government funding for further research. It’s a pattern in science.

  4. Pete Larson says :

    I posted this elsewhere, but….

    My opinion is that she and all of her superiors should be fired immediately. It’s unfortunate that she’s being portrayed in the popular media as some extremely clever demonic force, while her mentors simply bow on television.

    While it is certainly possible that Obokata selfishly wanted to exceed at all costs, it’s interesting how this evisceration of ambition has played out in the Japanese context. One wonders if the level of vitriol would be as great had she been male and old. I think not.

    I’m carefully trying not to make generalizations about “Japanese culture,” but I can help coming back to two constants, one of which is the well known mass misogyny and general contempt for childless women, and another is a general distaste for personal ambition, particularly of females. Like I said, I am trying really, really hard not to go there but it’s really hard not to. Though Japan is a terrible place to be a woman, particularly a woman who wants to succeed, it’s also a terrible place to be ambitious.

    I’m also trying not comment (given that I’m loosely affiliated with a Japanese university) on the low quality nature of Japanese academics, because that will inevitably open up a discussion of low quality American academics and I’ll come off sounded elitist, given my blue passport. I’ll only say that Japan, if it is going to (or wants to) successfully join the greater academic discussion, will have to do some serious house cleaning, starting with firing the worst of the worst (which seem to be legion) and encouraging the best not to emigrate for better opportunities.

  5. pete says :

    Seems that politics reared it’s ugly head to squash this type of research. If it’s dubious, just conduct more tests, duh. But no, they seem to want it killed.

  6. Pat says :

    Obokata has repeated manipulation of pictures & data and plagiarism. Obokata is not a scapegoat, she is a serial fraudster.

  7. Pat says :

    Vacanti, co-aouthor of Obokata, and his brother are also magicians of science labs.

  8. Edgar Solano says :

    Many scientific theories are a real crap and nobody says anything … because they are scientists (men) who have made fame with his crazy ideas that NO can be checked. The theory of climate change, the theory of tectonics plate, the anomaly of the South Pacific … these are not theories … are humourous comments :)

  9. Werner says :

    You wrote about Obokata being accused of sleeping with her mentors and then you discredit these allegations by stating that she was trained at Harvard. Yet you seem to sincerely wonder about whether she knew that what she was doing is wrong or whether she is being framed, despite her being trained at Harvard. You do admit that Obokata was a victim of shoddy mentoring despite her being trained at Harvard, don’t you?

    • Pete Larson says :

      I discredit the allegations that she slept with people to get to her position (as people have alleged) given that her academic pedigree seems sufficient to have attained it.

      That being said, merely having gone to Harvard is no guarantee of quality. Certainly the President of United States from 2000-2008 provides a fine example to counter claims that would say otherwise.

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