Bioethics Blogs

Accountability for Research Misconduct

Zubin Master suggests that institutions bear some moral responsibility for research misconduct

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In early August, Scientist Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide. Sasai was the deputy director of the Center for Developmental Biology at RIKEN in Kobe, Japan, and co-author on two recently retracted Nature papers about an easier way to make induced pluripotent stem cells by exposing cells to stress. The Nature papers were retracted due to duplication and manipulation of images by the lead author – Haruko Obokata. Although cleared of any direct involvement in the activities responsible for the retraction, Sasai was heavily scrutinized by the media, public and peers.

According to colleagues at RIKEN, since the scandal broke headlines Sasai was receiving counseling and was hospitalized for about a month. The family lawyer explained the contents of a suicide note that Sasai left for his family. Sasai was “worn out by the unjust bashing in the mass media and the responsibility he felt towards RIKEN and his laboratory.”

Stem Cell

Embryonic Stem Cell Colony

This case raises important questions about the responsibilities of research institutions to promote research integrity and to prevent research misconduct. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiments and other social psychology research have taught us that ethical behavior is not only shaped by dispositional attribution (an internal moral character), but also by many situational (environmental) features. Similarly, our understanding of the cause of research misconduct is shifting away from the idea that this is just a problem of a few “bad apples” to a broader understanding of how the immense pressure to both publish and translate research findings into products, as well as poor institutional supports influence research misconduct.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.