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Faked Affiliation of Stem Cell Researcher Not Caught for Years

16 October 2012 11:45 am
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Linked in? For years, Japanese researcher Hisashi Moriguchi claimed an affiliation with Harvard Medical School that did not exist. Above: The school's historic quadrangle in 2008.

Of the many oddities in the case of Japanese researcher Hisashi Moriguchi, who admitted over the weekend to lying about a startling stem cell experiment, is how for years he managed to claim an affiliation with Harvard Medical School in Boston that did not exist. Even a Harvard stem cell scientist who reviewed a meeting abstract Moriguchi provided—the abstract that eventually led to the crumbling of his claims—did not pick up on the deception.

Moriguchi's stem cell experiment is "something that's completely eye-catching," agrees Kevin Eggan, a stem cell biologist at Harvard University and chief scientific officer of The New York Stem Cell Foundation, which held its annual translational research meeting last week. Along with several others, Eggan reviewed the abstract supplied by Moriguchi, who listed his primary affiliation as the University of Tokyo and a secondary affiliation as Harvard Medical School. Like all other would-be presenters to the conference, Moriguchi submitted the abstract to conference organizers several months in advance. In it, according to a copy of the abstract supplied by co-author Chifumi Sato of Tokyo Medical and Dental University, he described transplanting induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into cardiac patients. iPS cells are mature cells reprogrammed to behave like those from an early embryo. The transplant would have been the first ever in people of this type of cell.

The abstract caught Eggan's attention, but didn't raise red flags. "We did note it and we were wondering about it," he said in an interview last week. "We were really curious to see what this poster was going to look like."

Because Harvard was listed as a secondary, not primary, affiliation, Eggan thought nothing of it. "There are countless people like that," he says, and a secondary affiliation often means little. Eggan himself has a secondary affiliation at Columbia University, which makes it easier for him to access different parts of campus, such as the library system. Had Moriguchi claimed to be based at Harvard, and not in Tokyo, "that would have been pretty fishy," Eggan says. And while he considers himself plugged in to the stem cell world, in retrospect Eggan is not surprised that he hadn't heard about this groundbreaking experiment. "We of course don't have a lot of ability to surveil what's happening in Japan," he says.

Moriguchi also listed a Harvard affiliation on papers published by Scientific Reports (a Nature publication) and Hepatology. As is common, neither journal verifies affiliations. (Science also does not double-check author affiliations.) Journals, including Science, say they assume that faked affiliations would be detected by co-authors during the writing or editing process. "We do require that all authors sign an author agreement," says Gregory Bologna, senior director of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases, which publishes Hepatology. The journal's author agreement requires that authors adhere to standards from the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. ICMJE notes that "[a]uthorship credit should be based on … final approval of the version to be published," among other things.

But it appears that Moriguchi's co-authors either did not see final proofs or didn't read them closely enough.

One co-author, Raymond Chung, is medical director of the liver transplant program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School. Chung was not taking calls from the media, but an MGH spokeswoman, Sue McGreevey, wrote in an e-mail message that Chung did not see the articles when they were in process: "Although Dr. Chung assisted Dr. Moriguchi with the initial preparation and editing of these papers, he was not sent any of the proofs for review. Dr. Moriguchi was the corresponding author, and Dr. Chung had no notification of changes Dr. Moriguchi may have made to the original manuscripts or proofs."

Chung and Moriguchi were co-authors on nine papers dating back to 2002, including seven published in Hepatology. Six of those were correspondence from 2010, and a seventh was an examination of hepatitis C treatment published in 2003. Not only did Moriguchi list a Harvard affiliation on all seven papers that Harvard says did not exist -- he listed himself as a member of Chung's own department, the gastrointestinal unit at MGH.

Both Hepatology and Scientific Reports are investigating.

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