The research fraud case involving a Kyoto University stem cell researcher is serious enough to prompt a rigorous, full-fledged investigation to identify the background factors and causes.

The findings should be shared by society as a whole to prevent similar wrongdoings.

Officials at Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA) have announced that research improprieties have been discovered in a study led by a specially appointed assistant professor at the lab and published last year, including data fabrication and falsification.

The 36-year-old researcher has reportedly admitted to the misconduct, saying he wanted to “improve the overall appearance of the article,” which appeared in Stem Cell Reports in February 2017. He was the lead writer of the article.

The scientist undoubtedly committed a serious violation of research ethics that distorted the outcomes of the study.

The CiRA says it will step up efforts to prevent research misconduct through more rigorous scrutiny of papers written by its researchers. The world-leading stem cell research institute will ensure that its researchers submit written records of their experiments for checks by the organization, according to the officials.

But there is clearly a limit to the effectiveness of such measures.

There have been reports of research fraud involving researchers with solid track records.

Individual universities and research institutes need to create a research environment that is effective in preventing fraud and other misconduct while establishing a system capable of detecting and correcting improprieties before publication.

What is especially troubling about the CiRA case is that the 10 co-authors other than the disgraced researcher failed to catch the research improprieties.

The assistant professor acted alone in analyzing the data and creating charts based on it, according to the officials. If the data had been shared by all these researchers for discussions, however, the fabrication might have been detected.

Trends toward the division of labor, specialization and subdivision in scientific research may have led to poor communication among researchers.

The government has been pursuing a policy goal of spending a total of 110 billion yen ($1 billion) in the 10 years since fiscal 2013 on research in regenerative medicine and drug development, especially in projects related to iPS (induced pluripotent stem) cells.

While there are high expectations for research in these areas, many of the researchers at CiRA, headed by Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel Prize winner who pioneered iPS cell research, are hired on five-year contracts.

The researcher is one of them and is facing the end of his employment contract in March.

Until he produced the fraudulent study, he had not published a single paper as a researcher at the institute.

It is not surprising if he was desperate to produce a paper before the end of the term.

An insecure employment status or fierce competition for research funding, of course, is no justification for research misconduct, such as data falsification.

But serious debate is needed on whether these factors are behind the recent proliferation of research fraud.

It is also vital to improve education on research ethics for young researchers and scientists in the making.

Nowadays, it is easy to copy someone else’s research paper through the Internet or create charts and images with personal computers.

It is important to enhance educational efforts to help science students understand basic rules of research ethics concerning what kind of acts are permitted and what can constitute violations.

It is, however, not simply enough to keep telling students not to commit research misconduct.

In recent years, the concept of aspirational ethics has been drawing increasing attention in the science education community. It stresses the importance for students to think about what kind of researchers they want to become and places special value on their efforts to realize their ideals.

This approach is designed to make students internally motivated to avoid bad behavior instead of inculcating them with ideas about what must not be done. Experts say group discussions are one effective method for aspiration ethics education.

The complicated challenges involved in the promotion of research ethics underscored by the latest research fraud case clearly require steady efforts based on diverse approaches.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 26