Social studies of science conflicts: dealing with scientific fraud in Japan

Author: Pablo Ariel Pellegrini (

Affiliation: CONICET, Universidad Nacional de Quilmes, Instituto de Estudios sobre la Ciencia y la Tecnología, Buenos Aires, Argentina​

Editor: Miura Motoi, Akihiko Ozaki

There are many cases of research misconduct, including scientific fraud, in the biomedical sciences. But there are also fraud cases in physics, mathematics, informatics, engineering and social sciences. It doesn’t seem to be a problem of a specific kind of science; all disciplines have registered fraud cases. It is a generalized issue, and an issue that is not so much spoken about. Is a subject that usually turns awkward.

The reason is that in any social sphere, impostors usually develop a generalized social upset that turns into a loss of confidence towards the whole field where the impostor has worked. It is awkward not so much because of the manipulation of the facts that imply the fraud, but because of the realization that the imposture, for a long time, went unnoticed. This can result in a general distrust: why should we believe in the rest of the people working in that field, if maybe they are also impostors that haven’t been uncovered yet?

This stance of distrust is usually exploited by denialists, that is, by those that deny a widely-corroborated fact. Cases of fraud in archaeology, for instance, are used by those who defend creationism, under the argument that those frauds can be extensive to the whole discipline of archaeology. By distrusting archaeology, they try to discredit all evidence in favor of evolution.

Of course, one thing doesn’t really have to do with the other. Not everything becomes relative because of some impostors. But that is a main reason why fraud cases are not so widely spoken about.

Nevertheless, to analyze scientific fraud cases may be very useful for many purposes: to find the social factors that motivate some people to commit fraud; to better understand the reasons why we believe in something; and to develop control mechanisms to avoid future cases.

I have been working in the study of scientific controversies in a wide sense. I look to conflicts in science as situations where the truth of a scientific fact loses its stability. The ultimate question that motivates me towards these studies is: Why and how are conflicts around a scientific truth being produced and developed? These conflicts allow us to analyze social contexts that surround each case, in order to understand its causes and effects.

In a recent article published in Science and Engineering Ethics ( I have analyzed some cases of scientific fraud in Japan. The aim of this paper was to analyze the way in which scientists in Japan deal with accusations of scientific fraud. The article was based in a qualitative approach, through the reconstruction of cases and an analysis of broader elements of the cultural background of Japan, seeking to inquire on the social bases that condition the way scientists deal with fraud.

Science fraud has recently been called to attention in East Asia through some renowned cases. Do these cases show that scientific fraud in East Asia is a much deeper problem than in other regions? Some authors argue so, by pointing at a particular “toxic academic culture” in the region. According to these perspectives, it is an academic culture where plagiarism and scientific results falsification are common. Others, on the contrary, argue that South-East Asians are generally non-confrontational and therefore cases of science fraud seem rare. These approaches are certainly contradictory.

The truth is that, despite several recent high-profile fraud cases, there is no evidence to support that there is a wider tendency towards scientific misconduct in East Asia.

The attempts to quantify scientific fraud cannot be fully satisfactory for several reasons. First, it is necessary to compare the number of retracted papers (retracted because of research misconduct involved) with the total amount of papers published, as they have also been increasing over the last decades. Indeed, estimations show that only between 0.02 and 0.2% of papers in the literature are fraudulent. On the other hand, the usual indicator of scientific fraud is based on the number of retracted papers due to misconduct practices. But not all scientific journals have the same, or even any, policies about papers retraction. In fact, most retracted papers appear in high impact factor journals. Fraudulent papers published in other journals may just neither be detected nor retracted. Therefore, growing retractions may be a good sign, as they could be showing a healthier and better institutionalized scientific system, with strong retraction policies.

In conclusion, the emergence of scientific scandals and growing retracted papers in East Asia cannot be taken as an indicator of a more fraudulent science than in other parts of the world. Initially, they just show that scientific misconduct practices are becoming more visible than before.

Focusing on the amount of research misconduct in Eastern Asia as a distinctive feature may be fruitless. But to analyze the cultural framework in which those practices take place is certainly worthwhile since all science exists within a certain social context, and such analysis serves to better understand the complex relations between science and society.

Through the analysis of a series of cases, I argue that there is something specific in the way Japanese scientists react to an accusation of fraud: the sense of a deeply injured honour, which frequently leads to a response in suicide.

Many Japanese scientists have reacted to an accusation of fraud or bad science, by committing suicide. This is something peculiar, as research misconduct exists everywhere, but it is not usual for scientists involved to end this way, at most, they walk away from academic science.

Accusations of scientific fraud are major attacks to a scientist’s name. There is no evidence that research misconduct rates are higher in Japan than in other countries, but the reactions to such situations reveal some unique features. Japanese scientists involved in misconduct practices have assumed their situation as a dishonourable one. Suicide followed in many cases, precisely in a culture that recognizes suicide as a legitimate way of dealing with dishonour.

Therefore, those cases can be thought as the emergence of a particular and drastic way in which Japanese scientists react to accusations of a moral harm. Dishonour is taken seriously in Japan in a vast range of situations, and research misconduct falls precisely into that issue.

In the article, I provide a general framework to understand the social dynamics behind scientific fraud. Then, by reconstructing a series of cases that took place in Japan, the peculiarities of Japanese scientists’ reaction to such situations are shown. A further section of the article looks into the particular way in which honour and suicide have been shaped in Japanese culture and society. Finally, I discuss the conclusion of the article, arguing that the most outstanding feature of scientific fraud in Japan is the way in which accused and publicly exposed scientists react, that is, by assuming the situation as a profound dishonour.

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