“Searching our souls”: Authors retract paper after researcher admits to fabricating data

Researchers at a prominent Japanese university have retracted a 2016 paper in a chemistry journal after the first author admitted to scientific misconduct.

According to the notice, Kyushu University investigated and verified that the first author had committed scientific misconduct.

We requested a copy of the misconduct report, which revealed that the researcher, Prasenjit Mahato, a postdoctoral fellow at Kyushu University who is no longer affiliated with the university, “admitted to falsifying research” in two papers on which he was first author: a highly cited 2015 paper in Nature Materials, which was retracted in 2016, as well as the 2016 paper in Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), retracted earlier this month. The university investigated and confirmed misconduct in both papers.

We covered the Nature Materials retraction last year, but at the time, the paper’s corresponding author, Nobuo Kimizuka, only told us that the “matter has been under investigation by the formal investigation panel of our University.”

According to the five-page misconduct report — which we translated from Japanese using One Hour Translation and is also available in Japanese on the university’s website — in July 2016, a member of the lab (“Faculty Member B”) began to suspect a problem after he reviewed the data with Mahato (“the defendant”):

During this discussion there was an opportunity to closely examine the text files created using raw data that the defendant had collected for the aforementioned 2 papers; Faculty Member B noticed their unnaturalness at this time and, suspecting the files had been modified, checked the raw data and then reported it to Faculty Member A, leading to this investigation.

According to the report, Faculty Member A, identified as “the head of the laboratory,” presented these allegations to the university on August 1. The university launched an investigation, in which:

・The defendant admitted in the prior interview and the written interview that he had acted fraudulently, and further that he had acted alone.

・It was confirmed that the text files created from raw data, which were the source for the 2 allegedly fraudulent papers, had been modified.

・The defendant agreed to the retraction of the two allegedly fraudulent papers.

When the investigative team met in November, “we came to the conclusion that there was no question that fraudulent acts had clearly been carried out:”

At the conclusion of the meeting, the responsible author Faculty Member A was promptly recommended that they should begin retraction proceedings for the 2 papers in question and contact other authors who had already cited the papers to that effect.

Kimizuka, director of the Department of Molecular Systems Design at Kyushu University, and Nobuhiro Yanai, an assistant professor at the university, who were corresponding authors on both papers, told us in a joint statement that they notified the university “immediately after the first author admitted falsifying the data” and also “requested JACS to issue this retraction.”

Here’s the retraction notice for the 2016 paper JACS, which also notes that the investigative panel confirmed, “no other coauthors were engaged in the misconduct:”

The authors retract this article because of scientific misconduct on the part of the first author, who was affiliated with Kyushu University at the time of the article’s publication. After the coauthors identified discrepancies in the raw data, the first author acknowledged his misconduct. An investigative panel at Kyushu University verified the scientific misconduct by the first author and also concluded that no other coauthors were engaged in the misconduct. The authors are unable to reproduce the fluorescence quantum yields of metal−organic framework (MOF) nanocrystals in the absence and presence of energy collector molecules (page 6546 left column, page 6547 left column). The solid-state upconversion emission spectra have not been confirmed at low excitation intensity as reported in Figure 3 and Figure 5. Also, the high stability under continuous laser excitation is not confirmed (Figure 3 and Figure 5). The authors deeply regret these circumstances and apologize to the scientific community for not having detected this research misconduct before publication. The original article was published on May 10, 2016, and retracted on June 8, 2017.

“Preorganized Chromophores Facilitate Triplet Energy Migration, Annihilation and Upconverted Singlet Energy Collection” has been cited 14 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science.

We do not have current contact details for Mahato. The head of legal affairs at Kyushu declined to provide details for Mahato, citing “protection of personal information.”

The report, however, explores factors that may have prompted Mahato to commit misconduct. According to one section of the report that appears to be written by Mahato:

When the research data could not be reproduced, the deadline for the submission of revised manuscripts was drawing near, and so I wanted to come up with data even if it was impossible.

In the report, Mahato also explains:

I was not able to fully complete the papers while doing research in Japan between 2012 and 2015,and I thought that if I returned to my home country (India) like that I would be unable to get a job or provide for my family.

Kimizuka and Yanai also told us:

Like so many others in the scientific community, we are searching our souls how, in this age of interdisciplinary research, to best keep the correct scientific record with preserving the trust between co-workers that is essential for productive collaborations. To fulfill this spirit, we acted with integrity to expose injustice done by the first author. We deeply apologize to the scientific community for not having detected this research misconduct before publication.

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