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Science Careers Blog

October 9, 2012

The World Champion of Fraud

When the Nobel Prize committee announces this year's winners of science's highest accolade, one category they'll omit will be research fraud. But were there a prize for scientific malfeasance, the top contender would doubtlessly be Japanese anesthesiologist Yoshitaka Fujii, formerly of Toho University in Tokyo.

"Perhaps the greatest academic fraudster of the last 10 years," in the words of the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required for this article), Fujii reportedly authored (if that's the word) 193 journal articles, 172 of which investigators have declared fraudulent. This astounding figure makes him the record holder for most retractions, and "nearly doubles that of the current unofficial retraction record holder, Joachim Boldt," according to Retraction Watch

In the course of 23 years of extraordinary achievement in the realm of fraud, Fujii faked not only whole studies but even his affiliations with hospitals. He also used the names, and sometimes the forged signatures, of other researchers as co-authors on phony articles. "His work was almost a complete fiction, but he kept saying that it stood up because it had been accepted by so many journals," the Chronicle quotes Koji Sumikawa, president of Japan's Society of Anesthesiologists, as saying. Sumikawa led the investigation into Fujii's oeuvre and found that of 212 papers by Fujii, 3 were found to be solid and 172 to be fraudulent. Evidence was inconclusive for the remaining 37.

This conclusion, states Sumikawa in the Chronicle with world class understatement,  "indicates that there is something wrong with the system." Apart from continuing to publish Fujii's fabrications, journal editors failed to notice that Fujii's publication rate of about 10 papers per year is, according to Sumikawa, "just impossible with original research." Questions about Fujii's results began to surface more than a decade ago, but in the intervening period Fujii continued publishing and even landed his $110,000-a-year post at Toho University, which fired him in March.

How did Fujii get away with fraud on such a spectacular scale? Apparently by being a seemingly unspectacular scientist, publishing in less-than-leading journals about relatively minor clinical questions. While his article count piled up to an impressive number, it attracted little attention in his field. The sole saving grace, according to experts quoted in the article, may be that his fraud had little effect on patients because the issues he investigated were of little clinical importance. Beyond that, organizations that were suspicious of his work appeared loathe, for various reason, to act on their suspicions.

Another takeaway: The peer review and editorial processes, being focused on evaluating individual articles, are ill-equipped to spot patterns in an array of publications across numerous journals.

"I think it likely that there are hundreds, or even thousands, of investigators who regularly commit fraud," says Anesthesia & Analgesia editor Steven Shafer in the Chronicle. Shafer's journal published a number of Fujii's papers. Not only are means of preventing fraud weak and cumbersome, he said, but with job markets highly competitive in many fields, the incentive to rack up lots of publications is very strong.

After his dismissal from Toho, Fujii was offered a job at Fukushima University, which is close to the notorious atomic facility. But once Toho informed Fujii's prospective employer that its new hire was, in his own way, radioactive, it rescinded the offer.  

Of course, the fate of one world-class cheat is not the real issue in this case. Fujii's stunning, two-decade record and Shafer's chilling observation together highlight a situation that threatens not only the integrity of science but, even more importantly, the health and safety of countless patients whose doctors may unwittingly depend on literature that has been faked.

Individual journals cannot police this behavior on their own. Only larger, better-resourced entities could possibly succeed. As yet there appear to be no effective means of tracking researchers' publications for patterns that suggest fraud. Hand-wringing and buck-passing will not bring change. With today's vast computing capacity, developing ways to detect hints of fishy behavior hardly seems impossible. What are needed are resources and will. The practice of science has long depended on the assumption that bad work will eventually be exposed. But as the Fujii case indicates, that process can take far too long. Those who care about the integrity of science need to take concrete steps to bring change.

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