Rehabilitation of Science Cheaters

May 17, 2018

Nature relates a case of a convicted science cheat attempting to rehabilitate himself.

last August, the University of Tokyo announced that five of Watanabe’s papers contained manipulated images and improperly merged data sets that amounted to scientific misconduct. One of those papers has since been retracted and two have been corrected. Two others have corrections under consideration, according to Watanabe. Another university investigation into nine other papers found no evidence of misconduct.

ok, pretty standard stuff. Dude busted for manipulating images. Five papers involved so it isn’t just a one time oopsie.

Watanabe says that the university’s investigation made him aware of “issues concerning contrast in pictures and checking original imaging files”. He says, however, that he did not intend to deceive and that the issues did not affect the main conclusions of the papers.

They always claim that. Oh, it doesn’t change the results so it isn’t fraud. Oh? Well if you needed that to get the paper accepted (and by definition you did) then it was fraud. Whether it changes the overall conclusions or whether (as is claimed in other cases) the data can be legitimately re-created is immaterial to the fraud.

Julia Cooper, a molecular biologist at the US National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, says that data manipulation is never acceptable. But she thinks the sanctions were too harsh and incommensurate with the degree of wrongdoing. “Yoshinori absolutely deserves a second chance,” she says.

This is, of course, the central question for today’s discussion. Should we let science cheats re-enter science? Can they be “rehabilitated”? Should they be?

Uhlmann is unsure whether it will make a difference. He commends Watanabe’s willingness to engage with his retraining, but says “we will only know at the end of it whether his heart is where his mouth is”.

Watanabe emphasizes that his willingness to embark on the training and acknowledgement that he made errors is evidence that he will change his ways.

Fascinating, right? Watanabe says the investigation brought it to his attention that he was doing something wrong and he claims it as an “error” rather than saying “yeah, man, I faked data and I got caught”. Which one of these attitudes do you think predict a successful rehabilitation?

and, where should such a person receive their rehabilitation?

[Watanabe is] embarking on an intensive retraining programme with Nobel prizewinner Paul Nurse in London.

Nurse, who mentored Watanabe when he was a postdoctoral researcher in the 1990s, thinks that the biologist deserves the opportunity to redeem himself. “The research community and institutions need to think more about how to handle rehabilitation in cases like this,” says Nurse, a cell biologist and director of the Francis Crick Institute in London. Nurse declined to comment further on the retraining.

So. He’s going to be “rehabilitated” by the guy who trained him as a postdoc and this supervisor refuses to comment on how this rehabilitation is to be conducted or, critically, evaluated for success.


H/t a certain notorious troll

10 Responses to “Rehabilitation of Science Cheaters”

  1. Odyssey Says:

    Should we let science cheats re-enter science?

    No. Five papers? Hellz no.


  2. JL Says:

    The awesome thing about science is that we don’t get to decide that universally. Small groups of people get to make the decision in their particular environment. The UK funding agency will have to decide. Nature journals will get to decide. NIH, in case he applies, will get to decide. Each reader of one of his papers will get to decide. Ultimately, he could continue trying to write papers and tryign to get them published. Much more difficult if the big grantors don’t give him a chance. But a wonderful thing in science is that there is no single one place, group or person that gets to decide. Same as variability in grant and paper reviews. It’s a feature of the system, not a bug.

    Personally, I would not trust his papers. But there are other people whose papers I don’t trust even though they have not been officially found cheating.


  3. Lilian Says:

    I’m currently taking a RCR course as a training biologist, and it’s interesting just how lenient scientific community is about this. Out of the class of 8, I was the only one who said in a class discussion that cheats should be expelled from the community. It’s also interesting that most of these cheaters suffer very little consequences compared to their transgressions, many re-publishing within a year, or happily moving to private sectors (e.g. Elizabeth Goodwin).

    The people who DO get burned badly are the students.


  4. drugmonkey Says:

    Are you missing the point that many aspects of science are zero-sum. When pages in Nature are awarded to one person, another person is shut out. NIH or Welcome grant budgets are not expanded to meet all requests. Lab space is typically finite, as are the positions required to use that space.


  5. thorazine Says:

    The other problem with this specific case is that, in this case, the UK funding agency doesn’t get to decide. Paul Nurse is bigger than that – right now, in UK science, he is maybe bigger than anyone else. He can decide unilaterally that his old buddy gets another chance, and he can decide to devote as much funding to that effort as he likes, at no cost to himself or to anyone else he cares about. He can take all the space that’s required for this at will, and somebody else will pay that price, too.


  6. Arlenna Says:

    Similarly the faculty who sexually harass or assault their trainees. I don’t think there’s any rehabilitation process that would ever make trainees and their careers safe with those people. I don’t think they should be allowed to supervise people anymore, ever.


  7. JL Says:

    DM, that is a good point, and there are other good points. Yet, I still like the fact that there isn´t a single entity that decides what is acceptable and good, and what isn´t.

    The zero sum game isn’t necessarily always helpful either. I have seen people attack grant applications and papers viciously under that flag. Once it’s been decided that X is beyond redemption, anything goes…

    I am more worried about the example raised by thorazine, where one person has so much power that they can single-handedly erase the misconduct effects.


  8. ginger Says:

    I guess the infinite affection, tolerance and trust extended to mediocre white guys who “have an oversight” in Western countries is also extended to mediocre Japanese guys in Japan.


  9. jmz4 Says:

    “I guess the infinite affection, tolerance and trust extended to mediocre white guys who “have an oversight” in Western countries is also extended to mediocre Japanese guys in Japan.”
    -Do you have any evidence this has anything to do with race or gender? If not, it’s probably a distraction.

    Yes, there should be a path back. It should involve no longer being eligible to direct funds or train individuals. It should involve an extra progress report on ethics compliance to whatever IC (or equivalent) supplies your grant and an outside reviewer (from another institution) to review data and publications.


  10. Assistant prof Says:

    No, we don’t need a path back for PIs. Not cheating should not be remotely hard or confusing. It is zero-sum. (Though I do worry at night about whether I might be able to catch all forms of fraud from trainees. I probably wouldn’t. But that would be restricted to a few papers.)

    This reminds me of a #metoo related rehabilitation of West Coast BSD in the lab of an East Coast BSD. More refuge than rehabilitation, but the East Coast BSD’s statements were similar to Nurse’s and carried much weight. East Coast BSD came down under harassment charges from multiple female scientists a year later. What loss having those scumbags around for so long.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: