Friday, May 22, 2015

How Yoshitaka Fujii, the Biggest Fabricator in Science, Got Caught

In April of 2000, the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia published a letter to its editor from Peter Kranke and two colleagues that was fairly dripping with sarcasm. The trio of academic anesthesiologists took aim at an article published by a Japanese colleague named Yoshitaka Fujii, whose data on a drug to prevent nausea and vomiting after surgery were, they wrote, "incredibly nice."

In the language of science, calling results "incredibly nice" is not a compliment—it's tantamount to accusing a researcher of being cavalier, or even of fabricating findings. But rather than heed the warning, the journal, Anesthesia & Analgesia, punted. It published the letter to the editor, together with an explanation from Fujii, which asked, among other things, "how much evidence is required to provide adequate proof?" In other words, "Don't believe me? Tough." Anesthesia & Analgesia went on to publish 11 more of Fujii's papers. One of the co-authors of the letter, Christian Apfel, then of the University of W├╝rzburg, in Germany, went to the United States Food and Drug Administration to alert them to the issues he and his colleagues had raised. He never heard back.

Fujii, perhaps recognizing his good luck at being spared more scrutiny, mostly stopped publishing in the anesthesia literature in the mid-2000s. Instead, he focused on ophthalmology and otolaryngology, fields in which his near miss would be less likely to draw attention. By 2011, he had published more than 200 studies in total, a very healthy output for someone in his field. In December of that year, he published a paper in the Journal of Anesthesia. It was to be his last.

Over the next two years, it became clear that he had fabricated much of his research—most of it, in fact. Today he stands alone as the record-holder for most retractions by a single author, at a breathtaking 183, representing roughly 7 percent of all retracted papers between 1980 and 2011. His story represents a dramatic fall from grace, but also the arrival of a new dimension to scholarly publishing: Statistical tools that can sniff out fraud, and the "cops" that are willing to use them.

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