Japanese University President Resigns Over Self Plagiarism

Yesterday, Ivan Oransky at Retraction Watch covered the story of Toshiaki Miyazaki, the now-former president of the Aizu University in Japan. The resignation comes amid a long-running and growing scandal involving allegations of self-plagiarism and duplicative publishing.

The public first became aware of the unfolding story in February 2022. Then, the school had completed an investigation and found that Miyazaki had failed to cite his earlier work in four separate papers. As penalty for that, Miyazaki was ordered to pay a one-time penalty equal to 20% of his monthly salary.

According to the latest report, a month after that, Miyazaki self-reported that there were 12 papers at potential issue. This prompted another investigation, with the committee looking at some 54 papers he had published.

Ultimately, the committee found that Miyazaki had committed self-plagiarism in three of the papers and double submissions in five. For the purpose of this report, self plagiarism was defined as new papers that failed to cite earlier overlapping work and double submissions as papers that did cite the previous work, but didn’t advance it.

Miyazaki appealed that decision and, though the committee did change one of the cases of double submission to a self-plagiarism case, the findings were largely unchanged. As such, they recommended retraction of all the double submission papers and corrections on the self-plagiarism ones.

In a statement, Aizu University said that the committee did not find that this was a breach of professional duty that amounted to dismissal. However, they encouraged Miyazaki to “voluntarily and promptly resign from the position of the Chairperson of the Board of Executives and the University President.”

Miyazaki has now done so, leaving his post effective on the date of the announcement, July 31, 2023.

It’s a seeming end to a long story, but one that is surprising. Not only because it’s unusual for a school to take any research integrity violation this seriously, but because it’s a violation that many still argue shouldn’t be a violation at all.

However, it’s interesting to compare that to a similar story that happened earlier this month.

A Familiar Story

Miyazaki’s resignation comes less than two weeks after Marc Tessier-Lavigne resigned from his position as president of Stanford University. His term is slated to end August 31, 2023.

Tessier-Lavigne’s story is complicated, but involves several cases of data fraud on papers that he was involved with, many of which he was the lead author on. These allegations became public in November 2022 when Theo Baker, a student journalist at the student-run paper The Stanford Daily, reported on the allegations

Thisa resulted in an investigation by an outside law firm, which issued its report on July 17, 2023. That report looked at Tessier-Lavigne’s papers, which were published both before and after he took over as president, and found that the issues of data manipulation “spanned labs at three separate institutions”. 

However, there was no evidence that Tessier-Lavigne was the one who manipulated the data or was aware of the manipulation. Still, the report did find that he didn’t have an “adequate explanation” for why he did not correct the issues when presented multiple opportunities.

Tessier-Lavigne, for his part, said that he accepts the report’s conclusions, including that there were areas he “should have done better.” Though he denies committing any fraud, he agreed to step down as president. He will continue to serve as a faculty member and operate his laboratories.

YouTuber Pete Judo posted a video about the story, highlighting how clear the evidence of manipulation was and saying it was “depressing” to see Stanford’s relatively weak response to the issues. However, he is not alone in those feelings. A fellow student and humorist at The Stanford Daily, Judy N. Liu, published a piece mocking Tessier-Lavigne and his eventual resignation months before it happened.

But what is unusual about the case isn’t the process or even the outcome, it’s the prominence of the university involved. Broadly seen as one of the top schools in the United States, such a scandal at the upper echelon of Stanford is outright shocking.

But the school’s investigation followed the pattern that I would have expected. It was a long, arduous process with a vague conclusion that, while not finding Tessier-Lavigne had committed fraud, finding that he had overseen multiple instances of it and may have unwittingly enabled or even encouraged it with his reward structure.

While it would be nice if schools could conduct quick and accurate investigations that lead to decisive action, that is rarely the case when dealing with faculty and staff at universities. Legal issues alone mean that there are many layers to any such investigation and plenty of motivation to reach a mutually agreeable conclusion.

That, in turn is the path that both these stories took, the only difference being that data falsification is seen as a much more serious offense than duplicate publication, an issue some see as not an issue at all. 

Moving Forward

To be clear, Aizu is not faultless or blameless here. They made a tremendous mistake when they did not do a thorough investigation on the first set of allegations. Clearly, they did not check into his work deeply enough. 

Though it speaks very highly of Miyazaki that he self-reported the additional problems, it shouldn’t have been necessary. The original investigation clearly was not thorough enough.

However, once it did conduct a full investigation, its findings were, by all appearances, reasonable and Miyazaki responded well also by stepping aside. Though, in this case, the president was accused of being directly involved in the issue, these are often considered gray areas that even Aizu itself admitted were poorly defined in its rules.

Stanford has the opposite problem. The issues with Tessier-Lavigne’s research are much more serious and point to an attempt to falsify science. However, there’s no evidence that Tessier-Lavigne was directly involved or aware, just that he oversaw the work.

Likewise, the school there isn’t blameless. Many of the issues took place before his hiring, meaning that his work likely wasn’t deeply and independently investigated before his hiring. To make matters worse, some of the issues were known at about the same time, with Tessier-Lavigne being alerted to at least some of the issues in 2015, as he was being considered for the position. 

But the profile of Stanford combined with the greater seriousness of data fraud makes this case a lightning rod. People are understandably upset about the lack of stronger action, in particular that Tessier-Lavigne will be keeping other positions both at the university and in the corporate world.

The outrage is easy to understand. But the flaw isn’t with Stanford any more than it is with Aizu. It’s with an academic environment where violations of research integrity committed by instructors and executives are treated differently than those by students. That’s because those employed by the school have legal protections that students don’t, making it easier to expel a student for simple plagiarism than to fire a president for data fraud.

Bottom Line

These two stories are incredibly similar. But where the Aizu story is largely seen as a school taking strong action against “gray area” infractions, the Stanford one is seen as the school being weak on serious issues.

The truth is, they’re largely the same story. In both cases, the schools made serious mistakes in conducting their investigations and then processed the cases through an imperfect system that makes it difficult to fire higher ups, no matter how serious the accusations are.

We saw this with the University of South Carolina in 2021. No matter how clear-cut the misdeed is, it’s usually just easier, cheaper and better for the school if both sides work out some kind of joint solution.

However, that’s grossly unfair to the students, who are judged under a very different set of rules. Imagine, for a second, if either of these cases had not involved presidents of the university and, instead, a regular graduate student.

The outcome, almost certainly, would have been much different. At the very least, there wouldn’t have been a collaborative resolution.

There’s no easy answer to this problem. Until then, schools have to muddle through the myriad of legal and practical issues when dealing with these, hopefully rare, cases.

But they should also remember that both the students and the public are watching. Sadly, the lessons they learn may not be the ones that the school would like to teach. 

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