Waseda University checking dissertations for plagiarism in wake of STAP stem cell misconduct finding

wasedaWaseda University in Japan says it will be vetting every doctoral dissertation it awards its graduate-level students in Advanced Science & Engineering* for signs of plagiarism, according to a report in the Japan News, a site of the Yomiuri Shimbun. The paper reports that:

Waseda University is investigating all the doctoral theses submitted to [one of] its graduate-level scientific departments, to determine whether plagiarism or any other irregularities were committed, it has been learned.

If any serious misconduct is found, Waseda will consider revoking the doctorates awarded to the theses’ authors by its Graduate School of Advanced Science and Engineering, according to university officials who asked not to be named. Established in 2007, the graduate school has awarded doctorates based on about 280 theses.

Haruko Obokata, a co-author on two controversial Nature papers about STAP stem cells, received her doctorate from Waseda in 2011. An investigation by the RIKEN research institute, where Obokata worked when she published the papers, found at least two instances of misconduct in the work.

According to the Japan News:

Waseda established an investigation committee in March, suspecting that Obokata’s doctoral thesis includes text that was stolen from an overseas website.

The school is also investigating whether there was plagiarism, fabrication, falsification or any other forms of misconduct in theses other than Obokata’s. The school intends to finish its preliminary investigation as early as July, and conduct a more detailed probe if any serious misconduct is found.

There have been accusations on the Internet and elsewhere that several theses that resulted in doctorates from Waseda plagiarized other researchers’ work.

One of Obokata’s co-authors has requested a retraction of the Nature articles.

Update, 10:30 a.m. Eastern, 4/14/14: Corrected first two paragraphs to reflect that this review was only of one department.

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15 thoughts on “Waseda University checking dissertations for plagiarism in wake of STAP stem cell misconduct finding”

    1. Just yesterday, I warned about the risks, physical and mental, to scientists embroiled in the retraction scandals and how we need to be vigilant, while seeking justice (http://retractionwatch.com/2014/04/07/pain-study-retracted-for-bogus-data-is-second-withdrawal-for-university-of-calgary-group/#comments). Now we see a new victim. It is unfortunate for Obokata.

      However, what is the really major news is the move by Waseda University to check all PhD theses. I think that Waseda has done the most noble thing and that they should now force MEXT to implement the same post-publication approach to screen all MSc and PhD theses from all state and private universities. Time to clean out the closet and see what was hidden within. Time to put on pressure on MEXT for immediate and wide-scale reform. Pressure must be added now while the potato is hot. Bravo, bravo, bravo!

  1. But what about the advisers? I don’t know the Japanese system, but there must be someone with ultimate responsibility for the work of the students.

    Some PIs are very particular about how the introduction to manuscripts is written. Thesis committees often demand changes to a thesis even when the student objects.

    I think the _primary_ responsibility lies with the PI. They have the duty to a) train the student, and b) detect misconduct by members of their own lab.

    1. Dan, the case is extremely complex given the massive size of research groups within Riken. The system differs somewhat from perhaps an EU or US system. The shock comes, I think, to Japan, because Waseda Univ. is one of the top three higher education institutes, and even though private, this has been a massive knock to their reputation. Also, the first stage of the experiment, which involved obtaining and confirming the existence of STAP cells was conducted by one set of individuals while the second step, the production of chimeric mice, was conducted by another set of scientists, in another university (Prof. Wakayama), and a separate supervisor (senpai or sensei). Yet, Obakata has her personal hands on each step of the process and should thus take full responsibility. I have just seen her speech live on NHK, FNN and RSK and I can assure you that her tear-filled apology to the media and society leaves one with a massive ball in the throat. It gives the impression that she truly made an honest mistake, has suffered the consequences and is sorry for it. However, she is now, contesting through her lawyers, who are still talking live as I write this blog post, that her mistakes were innocent and not purposeful. Other superiors are also taking a rap, but no doubt Obokata is getting hammered. And the media is relentless. She is a suicide risk and I am personally concerned. And others should, too. If we saw only 50% of those who committed misconduct be as apologetic, genuinely so, as Obokata has been, we would possibly have a rosy future for retractions serving a positive function in science publishing. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Most disappear into the shadows, and those that do come out, are either arrogantly defensive of their errors, or even try to benefit from it. Obokata, in responding to the reporters, has also leveled some error to Nature, which is a novel revelation. When asked about acts of malice, she deferred to her lawyers and was unable to provide her own interpretation. A fascinating hour-long media session, but which revealed no new smoking guns. Unfortunately, Obokata failed to address ome key issues related to a) group responsibility; b) publishing ethics; c) thesis plagiarism. Unfortunately, the media lacked any deep scientific knowledge to be asking the right, deep and pertinent questions. And, unfortunately, we have reached the stage where law and science have mixed.

  2. ” the case is extremely complex given the massive size of research groups within Riken”

    I don’t think the case is particularly complex. If it wasn’t for the big publicity push relating to this paper it would be a fairly typical episode on Retraction Watch.

    In any case, Obokata is no longer a graduate student and will have to stand or fall on her own. I was remarking about the preparation of theses and for these the adviser is primarily responsible.


    1. I think the complexity being referred to is in reference to how the Japanese cultural traits of avoiding shame, and showing group cohesiveness play out in such large groups.

    1. If this is true, then at least some of the supervisors of Ph.D. students have taught the students that this is an acceptable practice.

    2. I’ve had a quick look at those posts, and followed the links to some theses. A noticable amount do not have external examiners listed. Now this doesn’t mean that there were no external examiners, but if this was this case it could suggest that such examination is considered optional. This could have an effect on how contributions from persons asked to be external examiners are taken by the institutions concerned. Many with external examiners do not have one from an English-speaking country.

      I also note that the plagiarism seems to be focussed in non-core sections of the theses – introductions and materials and methods. I think the apparent insistence on perfect English theses, and a lack of such a level of English in the general population of Japan has a large bearing on this*. At least some doctoral students appear to be being forced to perform the impossible, by organisations that are either unwilling or unable to review their work – or face reality, and plagiarism is the result.

      I hope that these outed persons get treated with understanding, as it seems like the system and the institutions involved are ultimately responsible.

      Additionally, whilst there has been a focus on Waseda University, I have no doubt that this issue goes much further than just that institution.

      * English is generally taught in Japan with a Grammar Translation Method: Students are given a particular grammatical point, learn it, move on. Communication and expression are generally neglected. Tests focus on extracting an example of a grammatical point, so students familiar with the grammatical forms can do well in the tests – even if they do not understand the meaning or cannot use it in communication. Native English speakers can do very badly in these tests, as the questions require answers illustrating the grammatical point – there are often more natual, and just as correct ways of answering these questions – but to the examiners they are wrong. This reinforces a general idea in Japan that there is one correct way to do something. I wonder if has a read-over into the plagiarism issue in a subconscious or even cultural way, i.e. the leading English textbooks/papers are expressing the point in the correct way, so it should be used in the theses.

      1. “I hope that these outed persons get treated with understanding, as it seems like the system and the institutions involved are ultimately responsible.”

        I agree with this. If a student does their thesis work honestly and writes their thesis along guidelines that are allowed or considered acceptable by the institution, then it is wrong to hold the student responsible retrospectively.

    3. I think a key Japanese activist is Juuichi. Could you suggest practical ways in which pressure can be added to other universities, and MEXT, to move now to take action, to secure a promise by heads of department before the story goes cold? Once the media has lost attention, the cause might not advance so quickly. Now that the media has attention, we might seee badly needed reform. I agree with Eamon’s assessment that one key aspect is the fact that most PhD panels contain only Japanese professors and no external examiners, this for practical, and also for cultural reasns. But I don’t view it as an excuse. Most professors who serve on these panels are fulent (or should be) with international publishing ethics, themselves having published extensively in international journals. So, there is no excuse for plagiarism, not even for cultural or language reasons. The fact that already 23 out of about 280 (total) PhD theses contain plagiarism, in any form, is significant. That implies that other universities, of lower level, have the risk of containing more plagiarism. Although Eamon discounts the localization of the plagiarism, “that the plagiarism seems to be focussed in non-core sections of the theses – introductions and materials and methods.”, plagiarism is plagiarism, and if at the levels observed in the Obokata thesis, then there is serious reason for concern. The theft of ideas, without due attribution, is a serous academic offense, and is independent of cultural reasons. Those who use culture to excuse malpractice or misconduct as an excuse are trying to deceive (it’s not as if Japan hasn’t been one of the key international publishng countries, so these facts are common place). I hope that Juuichi can share some ideas how the foreign and Japanese researchers can add pressure on individual universties and on MEXT to do a post-publication review of theses, primarily PhD.

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