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University of Tokyo scientist hit by anonymous allegations fights back

Last September, anonymous allegations of questionable data and images in 22 papers by six prominent groups at the prestigious University of Tokyo prompted the school to set up an investigating committee. Now, even before the panel completes its investigation, one of the accused researchers has mounted a staunch defense of his work, with a point-by-point rebuttal of the allegations and an apology for mistakes confirmed in several of the questioned papers.

“We believe that none of the errors affect the main conclusions of any of the reports,” Yoshinori Watanabe, who studies chromosome dynamics, writes in a statement posted in a Dropbox on 17 June. He adds that he is discussing with journals whether corrections or retractions to the affected papers would be “most appropriate.” He writes that at least one journal has already accepted a “short corrigendum.”  

The allegations of falsified and fabricated data were made by an individual or group going by the name Ordinary_researchers in more than 100 pages of documents delivered to the university, funding agencies, and the press and posted online in two batches on 14 and 29 August. Twenty-three of the claims involved seven papers by Watanabe’s group. Watanabe goes through the 23 allegations one-by-one in a document placed in a Dropbox reached by following a link on a personal website. He explains where he believes Ordinary_researchers went wrong or misunderstood the image.

Separately, he has posted the submitted corrections, covering what is awry with a number of figures in five papers he says the committee identified as problematic. Of the five, two appeared in Science, two in Nature, and one was published in EMBO Reports. They all cover processes affecting chromosomes during cell division. The corrections blame the errors on such things as mix-ups in cell lines, the combination of data sets into a single graph, and improper processing of western blot panels.

“As the head of the laboratory, I take ultimate responsibility for these errors, and extend my sincerest apologies to the scientific community for any concern or inconvenience these may have caused,” Watanabe writes. He hopes corrections will suffice.

The European Molecular Biology Organization, publisher of EMBO Reports, is allowing the group to update images in one figure. The “image aberrations” only rise to the least problematic level of one on a scale of three that the publisher uses to gauge errors, Bernd Pulverer, head of scientific publications for EMBO, writes in a letter included in Watanabe’s Dropbox cache. “Our view is that the basic conclusions of this figure, and therefore the paper as a whole, stand,” Pulverer writes.

In an email to ScienceInsider, Watanabe wrote that decisions by Science and Nature are pending. He also explained that while there was some departure from best practice in handling images "most errors were unintentional." However, the university committee has tentatively defined many of the errors "as fabrication or falsification by a very strict rule.”

It remains to be seen whether there will be any disciplinary measures. A public relations official at the University of Tokyo declined to comment on the ongoing investigation but added that the committee’s report “is now in the final stages of preparation and will be made public when it is complete.”

Ordinary_researchers did not immediately reply to an email seeking comment.

Update, 6/22/2017, 10:14 a.m.: This article was updated to clarify Watanabe's comment about the errors in handling images.