Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

STAP stem cell co-author commits suicide: Reports

with 33 comments

Yoshiki Sasai, via RIKEN

Yoshiki Sasai, via RIKEN

In a stunning and tragic development, a co-author of the now-retracted Nature papers claiming to have found an easy way to create stem cells has committed suicide, according to news reports in Japan.

According to the Japan Times, RIKEN deputy director Yoshiki Sasai has died:

Hyogo Prefectural Police received a phone call around 9 a.m. from the center telling them that Sasai had been found hanging by a rope from a staircase railing at the Riken building in Kobe. Police said a suicide note was found nearby.

Sasai was one of 11 authors on one paper, and one of 8 on the other.

Our thoughts are with Sasai’s family, friends, and co-workers.

Update, 7 a.m. Eastern, 8/5/14: Nature issued the following statement:

This is a true tragedy for science and an immense loss to the research community.  Yoshiki Sasai was an exceptional scientist and he has left an extraordinary legacy of pioneering work across many fields within stem cell and developmental biology, including organogenesis and neurogenesis.  Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues at this time.

Hat tip: Twitter

Written by Ivan Oransky

August 4th, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Comments
  • Aria Amadi August 4, 2014 at 11:36 pm

    This is so sad and tragic

  • dayanaknits August 5, 2014 at 12:31 am

    No! Sasai was a first-rate scientist, regardless of this fiasco. His life wasn’t over by any stretch of the imagination. Absolutely heartbreaking.

    • Leonid Schneider August 5, 2014 at 2:56 am

      Still, the fabrications were his responsibility, he backed Obokata till the end. The extend of his involvement will now never be clear. It would be entirely justified if he were dismissed from his position, even if it meant the end of his active science career. His suicide was a very tragic thing to happen, and the rigid and honour-obsessed Japanese culture is largely to blame.

      • Aria Amadi August 5, 2014 at 3:09 am

        ” rigid and honour-obsessed Japanese culture ” is well said. Japanese media should also be blamed for the way they dealt with the story. I have seen several Japanese and (non-Japanese) professors and researchers blaming Sasai for having his name in the paper as an author while not being totally aware of the accuracy of the contents. Ironically the names of most of these people appear in various papers annually (as co-authors) and a majority of them have contributed something near zero to the paper. Our world is full of hypocrites.

        • Leonid Schneider August 5, 2014 at 3:44 am

          It is quite rather a rule for senior scientists to claim authorship on every single paper coming out of the institute they head. Yet Sasai (and Hitoshi Niwa) even co-authored the updated STAP protocol, which Obokata published to silence the increasing criticism of her papers. We can’t know why Sasai never distanced himself from Obokata, but eventually it was too late and he became co-responsible (even if his only guilt was turning a blind eye).

          • Aria Amadi August 5, 2014 at 7:53 am

            I know well that this is an unwritten rule. But ,with all due respect, I think this is a crazy rule and the scientific community should stand against it. Is it just a way for senior scientists to boast about their cumulative impact factors?!
            Abolishing this rule would be a good step to avoid similar tragedies in the future.

          • Leonid Schneider August 5, 2014 at 10:55 am

            this “rule” is actually illegal anyway. Authorships of a paper can be only earned by active participation in the scientific process. Funding and providing a lab alone are explicitly NOT a justification for authorship, if one cares to read instructions for authors. Esp. in medicine, such fake authorships may reach absurd proportions (doctors often only count the arithmetic number of papers they are on). Those who wish to stand against the rules, may find themselves in dire difficulties.

          • Ray August 5, 2014 at 12:34 pm

            Hmmmm, I’m not sure if “illegal” is the correct word for it. I mean, it isn’t “illegal” in the sense that you could be arrested for it. Yes, journals do have rules but disobeying them is commonly done and I don’t think it is specific to Japan or Asia. I think it is everywhere and variations might occur not between countries but between fields. I think some research fields still have single author papers, etc.

            It should be “abolished”, as Aria says, but easier said than done. If you are at the bottom rung of the ladder and stand up to it, then you will be an outcast. Not every institute is like this, of course.

            Abolishing it would be nice…then maybe the good researchers will get promoted instead of the ones with the most connections!

          • Toby White August 7, 2014 at 7:16 am

            Don’t forget that the “last author” rule has real functions. Trivially, it identifies the research program of which the paper forms a part. More importantly, it is an endorsement by a senior scientist (the lab head) that the first author was properly trained and is worth listening to. Naturally, this is a two-way street. It links the reputation of the lab to the work of junior scientists who are trained there, giving the the lab chief a serious stake in selecting and mentoring the professional staff.

            Notice that this is roughly the way every successful tradition of learning has worked: martial arts, Polynesian navigation, Indian classical music, modern mathematical lineages, craft guilds, etc. There are always some self-taught geniuses (and a larger number of self-taught idiots); but normally, it’s relevant to ask “who taught her?” and “does he vouch for her?” The last author rule helps answer that question, and gives both student and teacher a stake in the answers.

  • Ark August 5, 2014 at 12:35 am

    Sad that this rollercoaster of a story has resulted in such tragedy…

  • BB August 5, 2014 at 2:06 am

    I am stunned. Who could expect that the STAP-controversy would result in such tragic repercussions…

  • DT August 5, 2014 at 3:11 am

    I always had a feeling that a tragic ending would occur in this case. I was more concerned with obokata who seems extremely depressed by the events. Now her burden is likely increased as she must feel at least partially responsible for sasai (reasons to) suicide. He was her advisor and the retractions are obviously the main motivation to sasais action. It is worth that he even wait stap phenomenom verification, that if will be proven real, certainly will bring far more confort to stap authors. I do not believe that stap cells are real.

    • Leonid Schneider August 5, 2014 at 3:39 am

      Indeed, I was also worried Japanese traditions of honour and guilt would pressure Obokata to suicide. Instead, these rules claimed Sasai as victim.

  • PWK August 5, 2014 at 4:14 am

    This is very sad news.

  • Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) August 5, 2014 at 4:57 am

    We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this was related to STAP, at least not solely. He might have had personal or medical issues, or a pre-existing mental disorder.

  • Kabeer August 5, 2014 at 5:03 am

    Yes….its shocking
    I think scientific meriting needs to be overhauled and new way of scientific grading needs to be introduced….publish or perish is taking a toll
    on science and lives

  • Hsin Chi August 5, 2014 at 6:12 am

    It is really sad. We know that Japanese can always take responsibility for their behavior. It is, however, a tragedy.

  • Leonid Schneider August 5, 2014 at 11:49 am

    More background emerging: “One of the notes, addressed to Obokata, read, “Be sure to reproduce STAP cells””
    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/05/national/embattled-stap-study-co-author-dies-after-apparent-suicide-bid/
    This is too sad, he may have been the only one innocent of fraud in that STAP farce…

  • jt August 5, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Maybe there should be some rethinking of the giddy and gleeful way some commenters on this site shame scientists who find themselves caught up in misconduct cases, some of whom are not guilty. Even among the guilty there are gradations of egregiousness. In my view the seriousness of this site is diminished by some who take the approach of a sanctimonious vigilante mob.

    • Leonid Schneider August 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm

      Dear jt, even if Sasai was not guilty in data manipulation, he did grave mistakes by employing Obokata, protecting her and failing to investigate or even apply criticism to what went on in his institute. He was silent when the director of the institute apologized to the world. Moreover, he was corresponding author, and co-authored the follow-up protocol, thus responsible for everything presented there. His suicide was a terrible tragedy, yet even if he supported the STAP farce in good faith, science was damaged by his actions or inactions. Dear jt, maybe I am wrong, but are the duties of institute’s deputy director, project supervisor and corresponding author only of representative kind?

  • EH August 5, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Some readers, including myself, feel that the use of the phrase “stunning” here is inappropriate. I personally feel this because “stunning” can often be read with positive connotations rather than “to be stunned” which is perhaps more appropriate in this context.

    I feel that “In a tragic development” is all that needs to be said. I have discussed this constructively with Dr Oransky via email. I am against it because I feel at this time there isn’t a need for “sensationalisation”. Others might feel differently from me, and I am happy to discuss.

    Although my comment might seem pedantic to some, to me Dr Sasai’s suicide raises an important issue about the other side of the retraction process that we can often lose sight of. The impact on the lives of those involved (innocent, guilty and peripheral). I will raise my hand and say I have been guilty in the past of this.

    While we cannot in any way condone manipulation of data, I wonder in this case could something have been done differently to manage the situation and perhaps yielded an alternative final result?

    My heart goes out to the family and colleagues of Dr Sasai.

    • Bobo August 5, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      I don’t think anyone who is a native speaker of English would understand “stunning” to have a positive connotation here.

      • Jim August 6, 2014 at 5:55 pm

        Bobo, I don’t think EH is asserting that “stunning” is positive in this context, just pointing out that another word (shocking?) might be a less ambiguous descriptor

    • C J August 12, 2014 at 4:26 am

      I did in fact do a double take of the first sentence when reading and I agree that stunning is the wrong choice of word. As one of its meanings is emotionally shocked, I can see why the authors chose it. However, as it It is a word largely associated with positive connotations (just google it and look at its list of synonyms!) another word would have been better.

  • Maria August 5, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    This is very sad news. I agree with the above commenter who warns against speculating (as suicide is complicated). If the various rumors on Twitter about the content of the suicide notes are true and this will prove to be in part STAP-related, it may perhaps lead to a dialing-down of “hype” surrounding seemingly breakthrough results and some changes in how science is done and publicly reported.. I am not in this field and as an applied/industry scientist (rather than a fundamental research person) don’t have the same pressures, i am just sad as a fellow human being on days like today – for his family, colleagues and research community.

  • truth4science August 5, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    It is very sad that a star scientist would fall in this way. I am wondering if Nature had not rushed into publishing problematic STAP cells papers or had allowed a normal communications on questions regarding “reprogramming” with a simple “Acid Bath”, would this tragedy happen?. For this reason, I am urging Nature to take a correct approach to my criticism on its another flawed publication and also wish Harvard University not to delay a normal investigation on some irregular activities involved in a major research. See more at http://science4truth.wordpress.com

  • Leonid Schneider August 6, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Here it is, Sasai might still be alive if his resignation in March were accepted as recommended by the investigative commission. Yet nobody wanted to face the responsibility as the scandal grew and grew, and now this happened.
    http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/08/06/national/science-health/reform-panel-chief-says-stap-researchers-suicide-prevented/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=reform-panel-chief-says-stap-researchers-suicide-prevented#.U-ItYPmSyCk

  • Sylvain Bernès August 6, 2014 at 11:30 am

    This is absolutely upsetting. I just hope that, via the mass media, the general public will realize how the life of scientists is difficult, how they are day and night under pressure, how, in spite of 12-hours working days 365/365, many of them cannot even dream of reaching tenure track… Unfortunately, too many people still believe that the life of researchers is like that of Albert Einstein in Princeton, mumbling something about incomprehensible equations, smoking his pipe, comfortably settled into an armchair!
    http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/87124/Albert-Einstein-in-his-study-Princeton-NJ
    R.I.P. Yoshiki Sasai.

  • aceil August 6, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    A very sad event in science history!!

    It is not publish or perish; rather, it is literally publish and perish.

  • Daniel Ohata August 7, 2014 at 3:18 am

    Will retraction watch take any responsibility for the witch-hunt mentality that it supports/promotes through this website? scientists are people and they are not perfect. perhaps if more time was dedicated to discussions of why people cheat, or why scientists are suffering so much psychologically, you could do some good. yes, mistakes and fabrications are important to identify….but a balance needs to be struck before we lose more decent people to the storm of Publish vs. Perish.

    • Leonid Schneider August 11, 2014 at 9:29 am

      Dear Daniel Ohata,
      wouldn’t it a bit unfair and rather questionable, when honest people are forced to leave science in masses due to fierce competition and lack of positions, while those caught in data manipulation should be give a second, third or whatever chance? Especially if this is exactly what often happens, while some have built their entire careers, like Obokata, on cheating? What exactly is the society to expect then, in terms of scientific progress?

  • Mustafa September 13, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    It is a long lasting tradition in Japan that one would rather end his or her life by way of suicide, then to live a life of guilt and humiliation. This is perhaps an underlining motive confounded only by the militantly critical and prudent attitude of the elite scientific community.

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