Tohoku University struggles to handle transgressions by its President Akihisa Inoue

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Professor Akihisa Inoue

Professor Akihisa Inoue is the President of Tohoku University, is a leading materials scientist and the author of over 2,500 publications. But criticism from other Japanese scientists (as on this Japanese website) has now led to at least 7 retractions for plagiarism. Three investigations have been conducted so far  with rather wishy-washy conclusions. The investigations are in uncharted territory since Japan has no established processes for handling cases of scientific wrong-doing. There is no institution or body for supervising ethics or misconduct in research. And now yet another investigation committee is proposed. Without the guidance of precedent Tohoku University and even the Japanese Science and Technology Agency are not really sure how to proceed – especially when the allegations are against as prominent a person as the President of a University. Almost a classic case of  what in industry would be called “paralysis by analysis” where every analysis shirks the task of coming to conclusions, declines to make judgements and merely proposes further analysis.

Nature reports:

Japan fails to settle university dispute

It has been a rough year for materials scientist Akihisa Inoue, the president of Tohoku University in Japan.

Last March, an earthquake crippled his campus (see Nature 483,141–143; 2012). Since then, he has had to retract a series of papers because they contained text that had appeared in his previous publications, and has faced continuing calls for his resignation from the university, which he has rejected. His critics, mostly professors at his university, claim that some of his work cannot be replicated, and that there are irregularities in the data in some of his papers (see Nature 470, 446–447; 2011).

Inoue denies any manipulation of data, and there is no evidence that he has committed any scientific misconduct. Indeed, with more than 2,500 publications to his name, Inoue is one of the world’s leading experts in metallic glasses, materials that are more elastic and more resistant to corrosion than metals. He has previously told Nature that other researchers may simply lack the skills and experience to reproduce some of his lab’s results.

Yet Inoue’s battle with his detractors is far from over. Since January, two inquiries into his research have reported their conclusions. One offered a rebuke for the duplications; the other recommended a further investigation, giving his critics renewed vigour. The row raises questions about how universities in Japan should investigate allegations against their most senior staff, given that the country has no external body with this responsibility.

In December 2007, a committee from Tohoku University dismissed the need for an official investigation into Inoue, on the basis that there was no case against him. But Inoue’s critics were not appeased, because, they argued, the majority of the committee had been appointed to their administrative posts (but not to the committee itself) by Inoue. The committee denied any conflict of interest, adding that it was able to judge the case fairly.

 Since then, materials scientist Fumio Saito at Tohoku has pointed out that the text in seven of Inoue’s papers substantially duplicated work previously published by Inoue’s lab. These seven papers have since been retracted. Inoue told Nature that the duplications were accidents, or the result of miscommunication with co-authors.

Under pressure to take a closer look at Inoue’s work, Tohoku’s directors assembled another committee in February 2011. On 24 January, that committee’s final report concluded that although Inoue was at fault for the duplications, and that it should not happen again, the reuse of text is, to some degree, accepted practice in materials science, particularly in papers that draw on conference proceedings.  …… 

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