Back in the saddle: After more than 30 retractions, Naoki Mori publishing again

Naoki Mori

Perhaps it’s appropriate given the Easter season, but we have learned that Naoki Mori, the Japanese cancer researcher who received a 10-year publishing ban from the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) for imagine manipulation, has published a new paper.

Mori, who was fired and then rehired by the University of the Ryukyus over the scandal, is listed as the senior author on the paper, “Honokiol induces cell cycle arrest and apoptosis via inhibition of survival signals in adult T-cell leukemia,” which appears in the March issue of Biochimica et Biophysica Acta. The journal, an Elsevier title, is an umbrella for nine publications in the biosciences.

Two of Mori’s retracted articles appeared in the Elsevier journals Leukemia Research and Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. Tom Reller, an Elsevier spokesman, said the editor of the journal paid particular attention to the Mori submission but ultimately decided that it looked clean.

We asked the EiC about this, and he says that he was aware of Mori’s previous corrections and retractions. In light of this, apart from the peer reviewers and executive editors assigned to the article, he had an additional careful look at the paper particularly to see if there was any tampering of images, and could find no problems with it.

Mori’s coauthors on the recent paper are Chihiro SasakawaChie Ishikawa, of the University of the Ryukyus — whose name appeared on a dozen of the retracted publications — and Jack Arbiser, a dermatologic oncologist at Emory University. Arbiser refused to speak with us about the paper or answer questions by email, including whether he was aware of Mori’s retraction history when he agreed to join the manuscript.

So, does the new article mean Mori has been rehabilitated? Ferric Fang, editor of Infection and Immunity, an ASM title which retracted five of Mori’s papers in late 2010, defended the group’s sanction against the researcher:

There is no consensus regarding publication bans for authors who have committed research misconduct. Liz Wager of COPE has argued against publication bans.  However ASM journals and others reserve the right to ban authors for specified periods of time in selected cases.  This is the most severe penalty in a range of sanctions that may be applied to authors found to have committed data falsification, fabrication or plagiarism.  At ASM the decision to impose such a penalty is made on a case-by-case basis after extensive consultation and deliberation.  Dr. Mori was found to have committed data manipulation in dozens of papers spanning over more than a decade.  At last count, I believe that 30 of his manuscripts have now been retracted by various journals.  Such a sustained and systematic pattern of misconduct was felt to warrant a 10-year publication ban.

Despite advances in digital data analytical tools and plagiarism detection software, scientific publication is still heavily dependent on trust.  There is a quote attributed to Warren Buffett: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”  I believe in redemption, but once a scientist has committed fraud, it may be difficult for other scientists to believe what they say in the future.

We too have said that bans are a good idea.

41 thoughts on “Back in the saddle: After more than 30 retractions, Naoki Mori publishing again”

  1. I enjoy the information that this website provides; however, this is not a retraction and seems rather like a personal attack ad.

    1. I don’t see how it is. There are so many rent seekers in Science and its so hard to get rid of them. Even when they are caught red handed they still are allowed to pollute the literature with stuff that is wrong and wastes time.

    2. I find this to be informative. I thought if you were disciplined for fraud you would never be able to publish again. Alas, I was wrong.

      Quite frankly, I think all fraudsters should be deported to the penal Singapore to have their butt’s lashed with a fine-tipped sharp cane from an angry warden. But that’s just my opinion. So to me the RW report does not seem like much of an attack.

      1. why Singapore, NMH? Do they take this seriously in Singapore? This is an academic fraud. Are they good in handling this? Do you have any proof? Please provide them with examples – but no gels please.

        In my opinion, once you start faking the data, you always do that. Small theft to big robbery…that is all.

      2. You are a bit scary with your “fine-tipped sharp cane”. I just feel we are back to the Middle Ages. I am the first to be shocked by the growing number of frauds in science and by the lack of ethics of several scientists. And I would like to see a “clean-up” of the scientific research practices. But don’t you think that fraudsters should be judged by something like a Commission of Research Integrity according to clear and well established rules and not in a blog? We are no longer in the Far West where people were lynched without trial…


        If Mori is over 50, he would be spared.

        Anyway, I would like to see some shrap, painful, albeit brief and non life threatening corporeal punishment for fraud. Its one thing to lie, its far more extreme to lie and waste taxpayer money and other researchers time. That is what pisses me off. And faculty deadwood, by the way.

        Punishment of this nature would surely end this egregious waste of tax payer money. No recidivism at all, I would suspect. Let it rip, I say.

      4. @NMH, I did not know that these horrible practices still existed in 2012. But whatever, I still believe that these practices are from the Middle Ages and that we must follow a proper justice system in the 21 th century.

    3. I think the post about Naoki Mori is warranted. One goal of the web site, I think, is to study the overall retraction process, including career fall-out. Apparently Mori has been able to resume getting papers published despite a dismal record. That’s part of the process. Does banning have an effect on a career? Or not? It’s good to have people keeping track of what happens years down the road. You can’t have a historical perspective if you don’t follow up. I see no “personal attack ad”, just an update on the results of a past retraction.

    4. @ Shafer – Yes its not a retraction but the senior author was found to have manipulated data in several papers over a period of time therefore its important to be watchful when such people publish. See other RW post on JCO article and you know that such people tend to repeat. They seem to believe that if they could pull if off once then they can do it again. Also go through this paper and you’ll realize that still there are issues with this study that have escaped the ‘careful’ peer review and editorial overview.
      I support the ASM decision and hope that other journals too adopt a similar policy towards repeat offenders to send out a strong signal that data tampering and manipulations are not going to be tolerated.

      1. thanks @JudyH and @WB, I agree with much of your arguments and these are points I had not fully considered. However, I still feel uneasy posting an article, with a photo, of an individual who has not done anything wrong (this time). I recognize the author has a very poor history – but this is something the university, journal, and reviewers are all aware of. I reckon there will be countless of folks going over this work with a fine-toothed comb, so if there are flaws they will be found and then this blog can post the actual retraction. I suppose I liken this post to reporting that a convicted bank robber walked into a bank and legally took out money from the teller/

      2. Shafer – The problem is that the journals / universities are usually reluctant to take action on their own and someone has to suffer the consequences of reporting before anything is done. It seems to be more convenient to brush such things under the carpet. How do you explain a person with proven record of data fabrication finding faculty position when people with clean records are struggling to find a position? Is there really such a dearth of researchers?
        I like your analogy but just think .. if you have a convicted robber who has a history of robbing the bank whenever he went to one then if he came back after a short resting period (no jail term to serve either) and entered a bank would you still not worry about it? How many people with a criminal record manage to find employment in the same field of work where they were caught? Why is it happening in academia / research and its not only him.

      3. @WB, I agree with you, but again these very important issues can not be resolved in a blog. No matter if the blog is excellent. Why not having a National Commission of Scientific Integrity that could judge the cases presented, and could have the authority to ban the fraudsters of having any scientific activities within the national territory, as is done for doping in sports.

      4. @shafer: i liken such practices “scientific misconduct” in whatever form as day light robbery. Many of them are successful because of their publications – they got their position, promotion because of their publications – they obtained funding using these publications and other data. they robbed others from getting funds and jobs. What do you call this? I am not pin-pointing the above case. Should we call this a robbery? What do we do with these people? sympathy will be there – but they have hurt many people – remember. I agree posting the photo may not do well. Well, this is 21st century…

      5. @ Lilly – I completely agree with you that no amount of raving and ranting on a blog is going to change anything unless the university/ journal decide to act.
        Considering this particular case – Why did University of Ryukyus fire Dr. Mori if it was not convinced by the evidence of data manipulation? If it indeed was convinced then why this reversal of decision? Did they find anything new that showed that Dr. Mori did not manipulate the data? It seems like the university took that decision under pressure of retractions and they all waited for things to cool down and he’s back in business!!

        We do have institutional and national research integrity office but unfortunately stringent action by those is lacking. A professor convicted of fraud at one university finds placement in another university. How does that happen? Doesn’t the hiring committee verify the credentials? Is it really possible that they are ignorant of the reasons why that person is moving?

        If a complaint is filed with the university / journals then despite the rules of no retribution there is always some form of retaliatory action. If the complaint is anonymous then it is generally ignored. So sometimes I feel that going public remains the only option. Another positive aspect that I see on this blog is once a dialog is started about misconduct we have people coming out with specific examples of other misconduct by the group – see Roman-Gomez, BBA and other related stories. A lot of people are turning to public forum due to frustration with the inaction of the existing system.
        Lets hope that it would change soon enough.

  2. Regardless of whether the editors gave it special attention, there are still some dodgy practices in the western blot figures:

    Figure 4 contains 20 separate western blot panels, for 20 different proteins, all normalized to a single actin loading control. Clearly 21 proteins cannot be probed on a single membrane, ergo the loading control is not actually a loading control.

    Figure 5 (and elsewhere) shows phoshpo vs. total protein blots (e.g. STAT5 vs. phospho STAT5) which are not the same blots stripped and re-probed as is standard protocol.

    1. Exactly. And for all the apologists out there, please consider a simple fact most people learn by the time they are five years old: If something smells like a turd, looks like a turd, and feels like a turd, it needn’t be tasted to confirm it is indeed a turd.

      Thank you RW for recognizing and identifying the “scientific” turds that pollute our world.

  3. @amarcus: First author is Chie Ishikawa not Chihiro Sasakawa. Moreover, Mori has published quite a few papers in 2011 and 2012 in journals such as Carcinogenesis, Cancer Letters (Elsevier) and International Journal of Oncology. I had a bitter experience with these journals – they don’t even send genuine papers for reviewing as if they think they are on par with the high profile journals. Now they publish articles from a person who has more than 30 retracted papers. Any reader who is in the editorial boards of these journals, please wake them up.

    1. Ressci, Can you explain this sentence: “I had a bitter experience with these journals – they don’t even send genuine papers for reviewing as if they think they are on par with the high profile journals.”?? Were you a reviewer, and you didn’t review the actual manuscript that was published? Or you have submitted work to them and they were not willing to review it?

      1. they don’t even send for reviewing – just like Nature, Science and other high profile journals – when we submit manuscripts. Look at the above example – they are ready to publish above papers.

      1. I think he means that he has submitted his work to these journals and they choose not to review them, just reject them outright. That alone doesn’t seem so horrible, but the fact that they accept papers from Mori is what can make it offensive. Do you have to be “somebody” to get published in the top journals, and does Mori still get some kind of pass?

        I don’t work in this field, so I cannot comment on these journals per se. But I have had similar personal reactions to other journals – “Hey! They keep publishing Dr. XX’s junk but won’t even review MINE?!” Ultimately, I think good work is found via searches like PubMed, and not via journals, so I don’t let it bother me terribly. But I do know how frustrating it can be.

      2. yes, LNV. that is what happening here. I don’t have any problem if they don’t even look at the papers we submit. But when I see that manuscripts from people like the one we are discussing here getting easily published…it is really frustrating. That is life…

      3. OK, now I understand, and actually agree. I don’t know if there is somebody in the field of psychology here, but there is this little pretentious journal called “Psychological Science”, where short papers, often unreplicable, get published. Studies like, “People behave more unethically after they wash their hands than before” or similar social psychology fluff. It has a high impact factor in the field and they don’t send out for review about 2/3 of the submissions, based on some random decision on how sexy the article headline would be.

  4. Dear All,

    Data manipulation and plagiarism (including self-plagiarism) are universally acknowledged as fraud. These offences do not aim advance of the science, neither increasing the public benefit. These offences are ultimately about getting more money (predominantly tax payers’) by deceiving the authorities (that distribute grants) and the public.

    Please note that, when published, these become REPEATED and PERMANENT offence which happens to COUNTLESS people who access the publication.

    For this reason published fraud should be OUTLAWED just as credit card fraud, for example, is. Editors, publishers and author’s institutions turning blind eye on published fraud should be held accountable, as these become associates in it.

    If Enron’s fraudulent practices of deception were criminalized, WHY publication fraud still is not? What is the difference?


  5. I agree with Vehdwig that all the blots (fig 4) are not likely to have come from the same gel as 1) doing 21 proteins on a single blot is next to impossible 2) the curvature of bands for some of the proteins strongly suggest that they do not belong to the same blot (this holds true for a couple of other figures too). When they could make 2 panels for the blots, why they could not include the actual loading controls for the different blots if they were done? Again trying to cover up something?

    Before the critics of western blot go off about ‘see another example of why we should not trust western blots’, I would like to clarify that it was spotted first as it is clearly ‘visible’ but a more careful look is needed to find the other issues with the data that one can see if they go through the entire paper

    – fig 2A – data shown on apoptosis on cell lines treated with 80 uM for 24 h but check fig 1A. Every single cell line at that conc and time point has virtually no viable cells. Even with lower conc all except 2 cell lines have 10% or fewer viable cells. They claim APO2.7 detects early apoptotic cells (3.3 “…analyzed the frequency of apoptotic cells by measuring APO2.7 staining. APO2.7-positive populations represent early apoptotic cells.”) and yet are doing that analyses on dead cells (24h Fig 1A) while they can observe activation of downstream caspases and their substrate PARP cleavage at 12 h (fig 3). Has anyone ever tried flowing these kind of cells and got anything apart from debris and junk? Is that the reason why no FC plot is shown? May be the apoptotic cell values don’t match with viability data as cells might be necrosing but they never discuss it.

    – The same goes for their cell cycle analyses presented in fig 1C. At 40 uM and 24 h 10% or less than that cells are viable for all their cell lines except 2. They claim to observe changes in cell cycle regulatory proteins at 12 h (fig 4) but then wait for another 12 h to let the cells die before doing cell cycle analysis!

    – fig 5A Despite saturating the exposure for Oct-1 a decrease in obvious at 60 and 80 uM conc similar to that observed for Nfkb and AP-1 yet they claim that Oct-1 was not affected and it was specific only for Nfkb and AP-1 (3.6 “The inhibitory effect also appeared specific to NF-κB and AP-1, and not related to cell death, because no significant change in binding activity of Oct-1 was observed after the treatment with honokiol (Fig. 5A, left).”)

    The story is very similar to the one published & retracted in Cancer Science (2008) 99: 2286–2294. doi: 10.1111/j.1349-7006.2008.00917.x except that its a different compound.

    1. What about Mori giving back all the money from grants obtained by deception based on his fraudulent publications?

  6. Perhaps I am missing something here, but what precisely is achieved by holding Chie Ishikawa up to vilification?

    On the surface I don’t see anything of any concern with the paper itself, it seems to take what I assume is a plant secondary metabolite that shows some cytotoxic effects against proliferating cells in vitro and in mice. Plenty of other plant secondary metabolites do similar. I doubt that this line of research will be picked up by anyone or that Honokoil will end up on any pharmaceutical pipeline (no money in this type of drug for starters – and quite possibly the authors,like so many other groups, are gilding the lily), but that doesn’t mean it is wrong, or at least completely wrong. Whatever Dr Mori did 10 years ago, Dr Ishikawa hasn’t been shown to have done anything at all.

    I was amused by the reference to COPE in the blog post. I contacted COPE about some falsified data once (as well as the journal it was published in). Neither party replied, which is their right, of course. My impression about COPE is that their prime objective is to check that identical material is not being published in different journals – as that tends to undermine their product rather than any commitment to scientific misconduct per se. Authorship disputes and plagiarisms would be another of their foci.

    That’s to be expected, of course, any industry that relies on self regulation is going to set up these kind of Potemkin oversight boards in the first instance. Sort of like the Press Council

  7. Ressci Integrity points out a new dimension of the problem with academic publishing – that manuscripts are NOT judged on their merits.

    This happens when:
    (i) the reviewers (volunteers, and often students of the reviewer) lack appropriate qualification and expertise to comprehend and judge the novelties in the paper submitted (has happened to me)

    (ii) the reviewers are from competing academic group, i.e. they would do anything to “kill” a publication from a competitor (has happened to me)

    (iii) the journal has special relations with some authors (i.e. long time colleagues; co-authors in other publications; personal friends; one owes “favour” to the other, etc.) and the main objective is to boost the number of publications of specific authors (I can provide examples)

    1. In what sense is this “new”? It’s how human groups organize themselves, everywhere, nothing more than that. If you are aprt of our group we are nice to you. If you are outside the group we are not nice to you because you are a competitor and we want all the resources (like your group does).

      1. >that manuscripts are NOT judged on their merits<
        This is a “new” dimension in the discussion on RW.
        The separation “Us and Them” is known for hundreds of thousands of years, of course.
        Regrettably, one gets the impression from your statement that you would justify committing misconduct/fraud in order to get all resources/grants.
        What a pity!

  8. thanks YouKnowBestOfAll. Yes, I had earlier commented on this issue probably in one of the earlier blogs. We need to discuss about this – but probably retraction watch may not be the right platform for this kind of issues. The above is also true for many conferences being organized – look at the Keystone and Gordon Conference – you will see the same people in many of the conferences organized by these organizations. Look at the different conferences within closely related topic – exactly same people are giving invited talks in most of them…key stone and cold spring harbor meetings are not that different at all. One generation is gone and the next one appears with similar mentality…

    1. Ressci,

      Your example is brilliant illustration for my earlier comment on RW that some academics build their careers (i.e. income) based on the principle:

      “I’ll do you a “favour” (something which is not quite moral/legal), and you’ll owe me a “favour”

      Then, there was a reply to my comment: “Conspiracies everywhere!”
      Conspiracies, or not, wasn’t this the fundamental principle of certain type of organizations?

  9. Ivan and Marcus: We are all influenced by the citation index and impact factor. Would it be nice if ISI/Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge starts calculating the retraction index for journals as well as for individual PIs. This can be incorporated in the calculation of impact factor and other related indices. How about that? : wouldn’t it be good to have the retraction index of a journal. We care about h index. Retraction index is like negative marking in an answer script. Let us see how it goes. What do you all think? Please don’t shoot me with criticisms…

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