Michael Eisen reflects on the suicide of a Japanese stem-cell researcher whose lab has become enmeshed in a scientific fraud investigation: “Yoshiki Sasai and the deadly consequences of science misconduct witchhunts”. As Eisen reports, his own father committed suicide under similar circumstances in 1987 as an NIH researcher, after a member of his lab was shown to have produced fraudulent results.
Eisen emphasizes that in such cases, laboratory heads face strong opprobrium even when they are trying to investigate and uncover evidence of the fraud.
Of course everyone will point out that Sasai was overreacting – just as they did with my father. Neither was accused of anything. But that is bullshit. We DO act like everyone involved in cases of fraud is responsible. We do this because when fraud happens, we want it to be a singularity. We are all so confident this could never happen to us, that it must be that somebody in a position of power was lax – the environment was flawed. It is there in the institutional response. And it is there in the whispers – I still remember how the faculty in my graduate department talked about David Baltimore during the Imanishi-Kari incident.
The result is an atmosphere in which some researchers would rather cover up fraud than create a laboratory environment that prevents it. Nevertheless, in several recent cases, laboratory heads with years of track record have been the prime perpetrators of frauds, and students or trainees have been whistleblowers.
I agree with Eisen that researchers who “overhype” their results help perpetuate circumstances in which other researchers and students are likely to perpetrate fraud. Science is rather like magic – we need to keep our minds open to the idea that when something unexpected happens, it’s possible we’re being tricked. We need to emphasize replication and open access to data.