Chief Science Correspondent
It's been a depressing summer in science ethics.
On July 2, Nature officially retracted two papers authored by Rikagaku Kenkyūsho researcher Haruko Obokata, which had reported the creation of the now-infamous stimulus triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells. In January, Obokata had claimed that she had placed blood cells under different forms of physical stress, inducing the ability to become any type of tissue when injected into an organism. Had this research survived the test of academic scrutiny, STAP cells would have completely revolutionized stem cell research.
However, many remained skeptical about Obokata's claims, and further research revealed that she had digitally altered some of the images in the paper. Additionally, some of the content appeared to be plagiarized from other publications, including her own doctoral thesis.
Obokata has publicly apologized for her errors, but maintains that she still believes in her results. Yet until STAP cells can be reproduced by another laboratory, any claim made in the paper is no longer credible.
But the summer of scandal does not end there. On Tuesday, the The Journal of Vibration and Control officially retracted 60 papers that were connected to a "peer-review and citation ring."
National Pingting University of Education researcher Chen-Yuan (Peter) Chen had used false email accounts to assume the identities of 130 fake and real scientists. Chen hijacked the JVC's peer review system by using these email addresses to critique submitted papers.
At least one of these papers was authored by Chen himself. The remaining papers were either authored or reviewed by one of the compromised identities.
Science fraud is certainly becoming an increasing concern. A 2012 study (hopefully not subject to science fraud itself!) reported a ten-fold increase in retracted articles since 2002. The actual number of published articles had only increased by 44 percent.
What do the two recent incidents have in common? Some might point out that both took place in Asian countries. The STAP cell incident took place in Japan, and the peer-review ring centered in Taiwan.
Many people claim that the high social pressure in Asian countries to succeed pushes scientists to manipulate or even fabricate their results, earning them recognition. After all, one of the biggest science fraud criminals is South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-Suk, who was the principal culprit of a false stem cell cloning study in 2004.
Statistics suggest that there may be some measure of truth to this claim. A 2010 study examined the proportions of reported science fraud based on total publications. It turned out that the U.S. had a fraud rate of approximately 0.0046 percent, essentially equivalent to the rate in Japan (0.0047 percent). China's rate was approximately twice that of the U.S. and Japan, at 0.011 percent. South Korea's rate was the highest of these countries, at 0.030 percent.
Although China and South Korea did show higher rates than the U.S., the differences were not massive. Ultimately, it is important to remember that science fraud is not just an "Asian problem." It can happen to any scientist, at any institution.
These scandals are unfortunate, because they undermine the trust readers place in the publication system. I have criticized reporters who question the validity of science research because the results do not conform to their own ideologies. Although a rejection of science research based on bias is still unacceptable, incidents of science fraud only adds fuel to the problem.
I happened to unknowingly read the STAP cell paper last spring, and I had no knowledge of the scandal surrounding it. I thought the experiment sounded fascinating, and I had planned to make sure to Obokata's next publication. The only advice I can give is that if something about a paper doesn't seem right, make an effort to investigate it. If a phrase sounds familiar, Google it. If a picture seems skewed, look at examples of how it should look. Contact the authors or their colleagues if you have a question about the work. Contact the publisher if you have evidence that something isn't quite right.
Science fraud is a major concern across all cultures, but we don't have to let these incidents taint science as a whole. It is our responsibility as science readers to combat these situations.