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Editorial: Research fraud at leading iPS research center points to need for change

A researcher at Kyoto University's Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) headed by Shinya Yamanaka, who was awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his research on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, was found to have falsified and fabricated data for a paper that was published in an American science journal.

Research into iPS cells has drawn high expectations from the public for its potential to lead to the discovery of treatments for intractable diseases and the production of new drugs.

CiRA is a leading organization in regenerative medicine research in Japan. The latest case of research misconduct is disappointing, as it can only be described as a betrayal of the standard to which the center is held.

The paper in question claimed to have succeeded in producing in vitro models that function as a blood-brain barrier -- which prevents toxic substances and drugs in the blood from entering the brain -- using human iPS cells, and was published in the online edition of an American science journal in February 2017.

A reanalysis of preserved data by a Kyoto University investigative committee on research integrity showed that there had been 17 instances of fraudulent data use in figures in the paper and supplementary figures submitted with the paper. The data had been manipulated to support the thesis of the paper.

Kyoto University has said that this case of misconduct does not have any impact on other research being carried out or any future research at the university. But can we be sure that there have been no other cases of fraudulent or fabricated research? There's a need for further investigation.

Ever since its founding in 2010, CiRA has dedicated efforts toward preventing research misconduct. An internal third party checks the lab notes of all researchers once every three months, and researchers are required to submit data that backs the figures included in their papers. The assistant professor who was found to have committed research fraud had submitted most of his notes and data as required.

The center's leadership was unable to detect the researcher's misconduct despite these measures because the system did not entail a thorough examination of the notes and data. It is no surprise that CiRA director Yamanaka admitted that the checking system had become a mere facade, and announced the reinforcement of existing rules.

However, as research becomes increasingly advanced, it becomes harder for staff whose expertise does not lie in the notes and data they are tasked to check to detect improprieties. The paper that was found to be fraudulent was co-authored by 10 researchers, and yet CiRA says none of the other co-authors noticed any misconduct. This is outrageous. It is the job of co-authors to closely check the contents of a paper on which their names are published.

The assistant professor who carried out the falsifications and fabrications in the paper was under a fixed-term contract at the research center, with the end of his term coming up at the end of March. Hopes to extend his employment at CiRA or secure a new position elsewhere may have led to desperate attempts to produce results before his time at the center was over.

Yamanaka has long advocated for providing young researchers with stable employment. Science and technology is indispensable in the development of society. This issue is something that should be reviewed and deliberated by society as a whole, separate from measures to counter research misconduct.

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