Researcher with 25 retractions covered up other fraud, says university

Shigeaki Kato
Shigeaki Kato

The Japanese endocrinology researcher Shigeaki Kato, with at least 25 retractions to his name, is alleged to have been the ringleader of a scheme to cover up other research misconduct at the University of Tokyo, his former employer, which investigated the activity.

According to the Japan Times, Kato and three other colleagues took steps to hide evidence of image manipulation in five of 51 theses between 1996 and 2011:

Kato, a leading expert on molecular biology found to have masterminded the cover-up, denied his alleged role, telling Kyodo News, “I am responsible for creating an environment which gave way to problems, but I neither ordered nor tolerated such misconduct.”

Of the others, former assistant professor Jun Yanagisawa and former special lecturer Hirochika Kitagawa were involved in the five thesis papers in which the university found falsifications in experiment images.

Former associate professor Kenichi Takeyama cooperated in fabricating and tampering with the researchers’ experiment notebooks, the report said.

The university inquiry also found that Kato’s browbeating of his colleagues triggered the misconduct, according to the newspaper report.

All four researchers named in the investigation have left the University of Tokyo.

Kato is said to have manipulated data in as many as 43 papers.

14 thoughts on “Researcher with 25 retractions covered up other fraud, says university”

  1. 1. 15 years of misconduct (15 KNOWN years)
    2. 25 papers RETRACTED
    3. How many other experimental data were “altered”?

    Clearly, this gentleman was not a lone wolf. Does this case suggest science-fraudsters stick together in groups and browbeat anyone who suggests their work is fraudulent, their grant applications contain fraudulent data and that they ought to be brought to account?

    Can this be re-phrased? “Kato, a leading expert on molecular biology…..”. Is he really a “leading expert” or even an “expert”

    Well done Tokyo University, at least it has done science a good turn. Will other Universities follow, and if not, why not?

    1. @Stewart

      “Does this case suggest science-fraudsters stick together in groups and browbeat anyone who suggests their work is fraudulent, their grant applications contain fraudulent data and that they ought to be brought to account?”

      Well, yes and no. In this context, I like to hark back to the case of the honest postgrads vis-a-vis the fraudulent grant applications (and more)

      Of course most of ’em were too messed up by all the shit they suffered to have any desire to continue in science, but I hope they feel proud of what they did and that their honesty is still fvalued in some parts of human society.

      Most people get what amounts to one chance to become a skilful and genuinely honest practicing scientist. I do not expect it to be quantifiable, but how many people coming through Kato’s lab had not actually this one chance, but actually NO CHANCE AT ALL to become a scientist?

      It would be great if most labs worldwide that have pretensions to doing scientific research did not operate on the “browbeating” principle? But again, how to quantify it? Are these labs the exception or the rule?

    2. My view is rather negative. I claim that the situation in Japanese universities may be wider than is being exposed. My experience in Japan of at least 15 years has indicated that the strictly vertical pyramid prevents dissent, smothers any leaks and only surfaces when there are deep financial or political repercussions (e.g. RIKEN-STEP-Obokata-Sasai case). I have discovered a few (< 10) likely cases of duplication (data, figures, text) by Japanese scientists. Yet, when reported to their universities, or to MEXT, the response: dead silence. Without a doubt, unless a hawk steps into MEXT and demands a whole post-publication peer review approach to MSc and PhD theses, and to already published papers, including in journals in the Beall predatory list, we will continue to see this bursts of fraud and academic misconduct, and their cover-ups, leaving the Japanese society stunned, and also the international community, who is mistaken, I believe, about this aspect of Japan. This does not reflect on the human personalities in question, since some of these individuals are exceptionally kind and heartfelt, but it reflects on a system that has an extremely poor structure in place. For example, I can indicate that my former university, Kagawa University, in its 105-year history, did not have (and supposedly still does not have) an ethics guideline for research and publishing. Absolutely astonishing how a public university, even more so, on campuses dedicated to science, can not have any such basic "ethics" structure. When the base is made of sand, as is the case with many state-sponsored universities in Japan, then there is room for dozens or hundreds of Kato-like cases. The only thing is that they have not been discovered, or exposed, yet. If this level of fraud occurred in Tokyo University, most likely ranked first in Japan, then how can one expect any better in any other Japanese university? For example, consider the odd logic of Waseda University, which found that large portions of Obokata's PhD thesis were plagiarized: the PhD would not be revoked because, at least until 2014, there was no such clause that could accommodate this action. This brick-headed mentality that does not follow any logic or rationale, will be the demise of Japanese academia, who fail, point blank, to embrace post-publication peer review as the new model in science and science publishing moving forward.

        1. Aria, this system is a joke, in my opinion. Two international papers is meaningless, especially since they can publish in many of Beall’s listed journals. Provided that the web-site states that it is an “international” journal and/or has an “international editor board”, naive, or ignorant professors, may believe this to be sufficient for attaining this 2-paper minimum. I have been arguing this point for about 10 years now to quite a few Japanese professors.

      1. Having a “code of conduct” in place (like all US universities) is nothing more than a lip-service unless there is a culture of faith behind it. And having the faith, hence following the moral code, is extremely difficult when your worth, hence career and life, is being judged by the number of paper you publish and the amount of grant money you bring to the institution, which all hinges on the number of buttocks you have to kiss and/or not uncover — hard work and honesty can only get you so far. Try piss off some professor who happens to be on the NIH review board, guess what, you just jeopardized your next 2 years of funding. I have been there, you start asking the hard question about the conducts of your superiors and your colleagues and the next minute everybody stops talking to you and eventually you are shown the door. So “code of conduct” and classes to train the “code of conduct” are all just duct-tapes. The system is inherently flawed: When you make people compete, less-than-honest, but smart nonetheless, people will cheat, some more than others because that is how one survives the game, while honest people, once realizing what is going on, will just quit the game because it is extremely unhealthy to challenge the system from within, like the case of the John Hopkins scientist reported here a couple of years ago.

  2. As the public becomes more aware of scientific misconduct and fraud, universities will be forced to adopt a new employment framework for researchers and professors. It is likely that tenure and academic freedom will be a thing of the past.

    1. I agree that it is what will happen but sadly it is the wrong recourse. Getting rid of tenure and restrict academic freedom will only make the matter worse. The only thing that is keeping some of the more established labs honest right now is the tenure system, the last and the only mechanism for protecting the professional-pride. Pride is the what keeps these people honest. On the other end, it is the only promise that is attracting the young honest idealists to join the fray. Without the allure and the prestige of tenure and academic freedom, the system will not be able to attract or maintain enough honest people to self-check. Let us be frank, the life of the mind, played out honestly, pays very little. Why would any honest-smart person want to jump into the fight without some promise of salvation at the end of the road: Nuns and monks are guaranteed entry into the heaven so what is there to look forward to for a young aspiring honest scientist if not the promise of freedom.

  3. I believe we can assume that there were individuals in that lab over those many years who were aware
    of what was going on.yet said nothing for fear of the consequences..Unfortunately, such fears are justified.
    What can be done to truly protect whistleblowers?


    1. Of note: at the annual speech by the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, delivered at Hiroshima to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the atomic bomb, more than half of the speech delivered in 2014 was, word-for-word, identical to that delivered in 2013. Identical. One TV station even showed a screen-by-screen play-over of both speeches, differing at times only by differences in pauses. This failure by select senior politicians to recognize the seriousness of their own self-plagiarism may begin to explain some of the underlying attitudes that have, to date, thus far, successfully hidden the problems underlying Japanese academia. The Japanese society and academia should take very close notice of this.

  4. I think there may be a clustering effect. After all, the serial fraudster will not want to collaborate with someone who leaves no stone unturned. After initiating such collaboration, it will surely fall flat pretty quickly, though perhaps not before the fraudster accumulates another paper with an unwitting collaborator who did their part of the experiments properly. Whether the collaborator has the time/energy/knowledge/security/courage to publicly query the papers is another matter, though PubPeer certainly must be of help here.
    So long-term collaboration is likely to involve another fraudster.

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