AsianScientist (Aug. 8, 2014) – One of the first few stories I covered when I joined Asian Scientist Magazine was Haruko Obokata’s spectacular rise and devastating fall.
I found myself feeling quite sympathetic towards her, a female scientist just two years older than myself in a research environment heavily dominated by men. (Only 14 percent of Japan’s researchers are female, according to 2013 UNESCO data.) When I read through her papers and scrutinized the figures, I asked myself whether I would have spotted the mistakes if I were her reviewer; the image manipulation is hard to notice unless you’re actively looking for it and most would assume that the journal should have picked out the plagiarism with software like CrossCheck.
Furthermore, the lane spliced into the gel image was a control, and does not affect the claims that STAP cells are pluripotent, at least in my opinion. But as the weight of evidence grows, particularly co-author Teruhiko Wakayama’s report that the alleged STAP cells he received from Obokata were genetically different from the mice he first gave her, Obokata’s claim that a simple acid treatment can cause cells to revert to a pluripotent state begins to strain credulity. The two high profile papers in Nature were eventually retracted on Jul. 2, 2014.
I have no sympathy at all, though, for Peter Chen, a scientist last at the National Pingtung University of Education in Taiwan who created up to 130 fake email accounts to pose as reviewers for his own papers in the Journal of Vibration and Control. In the fallout of the “peer review ring” bust, which saw a total of 60 papers co-authored by Chen retracted, Taiwan’s education minister Chiang Wei-ling resigned under immense public pressure. However, the exposé comes too late for Taiwan’s ministry of science and technology, which has already spent over NT$5.08 million (US$169,164) in research funding on Chen’s work.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time peer review has been conducted carelessly. In 2012, South Korean plant researcher Moon Hyung-in was discovered to have used the same method, creating fake email identities to give his own papers positive reviews.
Over in India, three papers published in PLoS One listing Fazlurrahman Khan as the first author and Swaranjit Singh Cameotra as the corresponding author were retracted on Jul. 9, 2014. Conducted at the Institute of Microbial Technology under the aegis of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Chandigarh, the figures from the papers are remarkably similar, and were found to be based on fabricated data. Following the initial investigation, an additional four papers from different journals will now also be retracted, according to The Hindu.
These recent retractions recall the infamous Hwang Woo-suk scandal in 2005, which led to the retraction of two of his papers published in Science.
As the editor of Asian Scientist Magazine, it saddens me that media coverage of Asian science news features so many retractions. Although it is our duty as reporters to also bring you stories on the weaknesses and shortcomings of the research climate in Asia, we also feel that there is so much good research being done in Asia that does not get the coverage it deserves.
The issue at stake here is not just the reputations of the individual scientists or institutions involved, but Asia’s credibility as a producer of scientific knowledge. The practice and publication of science relies on trust; trust that rests mostly on professional self-regulation. The string of three retractions cases last month underscores the need for reform not only in journal review processes, but also in the institutional practice of science.
While scientists may not welcome the increased scrutiny and perceived restrictions, measures to enhance research integrity in Asia will serve to strengthen our ethos, ultimately making Asian research more influential. Scientists with nothing to hide will only stand to gain from a more honest and transparent research environment, whether in Asia or anywhere else in the world.
This is the first article of a monthly column called From The Editor’s Desk(top). Click here to see the other articles in this series.
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