University of Tokyo declares prominent Japanese researcher guilty of misconduct
The University of Tokyo investigated for almost a year the allegations of scientific misconduct on Yoshinori Watanabe, an eminent researcher affiliated with the institution. The university’s investigative committee declared Watanabe, a cell biologist, as well as his former lab assistant Yuji Tanno guilty of committing scientific misconduct in five papers. The university is yet to decide on how Watanabe will be brought to justice. The news has created a stir among researchers who study cell division because Watanabe is a prominent figure in the field.
In September last year, an anonymous entity raised questions about 22 papers published by six well-known research groups. It was alleged that these papers contained fabricated data and doctored images. Following this, the university began an investigation that lasted for almost a year. While five research groups were cleared by the panel, Watanabe was found to be guilty. In May, after the panel announced this, Watanabe expressed that he intended to take necessary actions to correct his mistakes.
All five papers in question were based on Watanabe’s research on the processes that affect chromosomes during cell division. Two of the papers were published in Nature, two in Science, and one in EMBO Reports. Several illustrations in these papers were tampered with, which Watanabe describes as “improperly processed” and “captured under different imaging conditions.” Shockingly, the report notes that Watanabe practiced image enhancement quite commonly and had trained his lab members to do the same. Therefore, the committee’s report states that Tanno’s involvement was due to Watanabe’s mentoring.
Even before the investigative committee declared its findings, Watanabe was facing the consequences of being in the midst of allegations about the integrity of his work. All of his 15 lab members left, and his federal funding for five years which was worth US$3.7 million was suspended. As a result, his career was in shambles even before he was pronounced guilty. While clarifying his behavior, Watanabe said, “Hearing that these types of behaviors constitute fabrication and falsification fills me with regret.” Some researchers from Watanabe’s field believe his explanation that he did not manipulate the images with the intent of committing fraud since his research has been the basis of several advancements. “I find it impossible to think that these mistakes were dictated by the intention to deceive the scientific community or falsify the data,” says Daniela Cimini, a cell biologist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
A separate committee will be appointed to recommend Watanabe to either correct or retract the papers that have been manipulated. On its part, the university will carry on further investigations on all the papers published by him before deciding on his reprimand.
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