Scientific fraud announced in two studies of the 2016 M=7.0 Kumamoto, Japan, earthquake

2016年M7熊本地震にまつわる二件の研究不正について
By Ross S. Stein, Ph.D., Temblor CEO

 

In one case, the fault rupture and its associated seismicity had been shifted toward a volcano in support of the author’s hypothesis; in the other, seismograms from temporary near-fault stations had been manufactured. In both cases, evaluation committees and universities called for retractions.

 

Citation: Ross S. Stein (2019), Scientific fraud announced in two studies of the 2016 M=7.0 Kumamoto, Japan, earthquake, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.018

 

On Tuesday, March 26, Kyoto University held a press conference to announce that a panel of outside experts had concluded that Prof. Aiming Lin of Kyoto University had fabricated, mislocated, distorted, and misrepresented data in a paper published in the journal, Science, in October/November 2016. Endorsing the conclusion of the panel, the University called for the paper to be retracted by Science. Retraction has, so far, has not occurred, nor has Science published an ‘Editorial Expression of Concern’ which can appear when the integrity of a paper is questioned.

Prof. Lin told the investigation committee that he made careless mistakes because he was not accustomed to using drawing software, but he argued that the paper’s conclusion—that the 2016 rupture was arrested by the Aso volcano—was nevertheless correct. The Evaluation Committee and University administration respectfully disagreed. The Kyoto University administration stated in the press conference that while Prof. Lin would be subject to unspecified disciplinary actions, the investigation committee had exonerated his five coauthors on the study, four of whom also are associated with Kyoto University.

 

What is Prof. Lin accused of doing?

Lin et al. based their argument on the 2016 right-lateral fault rupture (whichever side you are on, the other side moves to the right), and its associated seismicity extending into the Aso caldera, where they contended the rupture ran into the magma body feeding the volcano, and stopped. The Lin et al. fault rupture (Sites 1 to 9, below) are seen to extend well into the caldera. But the independently mapped rupture (sites 1 to 5) terminates well outside of the caldera, contradicting Lin et al.’s argument that the magma stopped the rupture. Further, the Committee found that Site 5, which Lin et al identify as the site of peak right-lateral slip, in fact records only normal slip. Here are three key figures from the Evaluation Committee report, slightly modified for readability, and with the Japanese annotations removed.

 

A comparison of Lin et al. fig. 2A and the Evaluation Committee’s rectified figure on a shaded relief map. The Lin et al. rupture for the Kumamoto earthquake (black lines, above) extend into the caldera; the independently mapped rupture (red and green lines, below) do not. The caldera itself is mislocated in the Lin et al. map.
A comparison of Lin et al. fig. 2A and the Evaluation Committee’s rectified figure on a shaded relief map. The Lin et al. rupture for the Kumamoto earthquake (black lines, above) extend into the caldera; the independently mapped rupture (red and green lines, below) do not. The caldera itself is mislocated in the Lin et al. map.

 

The Evaluation Committee further found that the maps in Lin et al. were distorted (stretched) N-S vs. E-W, and that the caldera rim (white line above) was mis-registered by several kilometers in the Lin et al. (2016) maps. Many of the field points are mislocated in the map. For example, Lin et al. placed Site 5 on the caldera rim, but it is actually 2.8 km outside the rim. Sites 8 and 9, which Lin et al. place 1.5 km apart, are in fact 50-80 m apart.

 

A comparison of Lin et al. figs. 2A and 2B (middle and bottom panels) with the Evaluation Committee’s rectified and re-registered figures (top and middle panels).
A comparison of Lin et al. figs. 2A and 2B (middle and bottom panels) with the Evaluation Committee’s rectified and re-registered figures (top and middle panels).

 

The Evaluation Committee found that the fault slip model, from Koketsu et al. (2016), had been shifted by 5 km and rescaled, and with the epicenter repositioned 3.5 km. When rectified to its proper position, it is evident that the principal slip at depth, and not just at the surface, stopped short of the caldera, contradicting the Lin et al. thesis. Lin et al. Sites 4 and 5 are seen to lie in slip saddles (thin red lines connecting upwards to single arrowheads), not slip peaks as Lin et al. had argued Lin et al. (dashed red lines connecting downward to the double arrowheads).

 

A comparison of Lin et al. fig 1B with the Evaluation Committee’s superimposed boxes used by the NIED to plot seismicity cross-sections. They found that the boxes shown in Lin et al. designated by Roman numerals do not correspond to the numbered boxes used by the NIED. The base map has only one lat/lon mark, making its registration difficult and its distortion hard to detect.
A comparison of Lin et al. fig 1B with the Evaluation Committee’s superimposed boxes used by the NIED to plot seismicity cross-sections. They found that the boxes shown in Lin et al. designated by Roman numerals do not correspond to the numbered boxes used by the NIED. The base map has only one lat/lon mark, making its registration difficult and its distortion hard to detect.

 

Lin et al. used seismicity maps and cross-sections to argue that aftershocks accompanied the rupture into the caldera. But the Committee found that the seismicity cross-sections shown in Lin et al. figure 1B (above) were rotated clockwise by 30° and mis-located by up to 10 km eastward, giving the false impression that the active fault trace and aftershocks extended into the caldera (compare red numbered polygons with white roman-numeraled boxes above). As a result of the distortion and relocation of these cross-sections, the faults drawn in fig. 1C cross-sections do not connect to their surface traces.

 

Sloppiness or manipulation?

Immediately after a large damaging earthquake, field observations are difficult to conduct. Even using handheld GPS units, some mislocation of field points is possible. But the Evaluation Committee found that the mislocations and distortions altered the data in a manner to support the hypothesis of the authors, rather than as random errors associated with field reconnaissance. Deferring judgement on Prof. Lin’s intentions, they nevertheless called this fraud and falsification.

 

Fabricated Kumamoto seismograms by another author

On 18 March 2019, Osaka University announced that Dr. Yoshiya Hata, Associate Professor of the Graduate School of Engineering of Osaka University, faked some of the data used in at least five papers about the Kumamoto earthquake. Dr. Hata resigned his Osaka post and subsequently died. 

Although Dr. Hata claimed that he had installed a seismograph and collected the observation data shown in these papers, the Evaluation Committee empaneled by Osaka University found that he had instead fabricated the seismograms by manipulating data, essentially stretching and rescaling the wiggles of the seismogram, observed by seismographs installed by other institutes. The Investigation Committee has also determined that he falsified the theoretical calculation values to make the fabricated data appear more convincing. The Investigation Committee did not find that the co-authors were involved in the research misconduct.

 

The seismograms for the permanent KIK and MTO seismic stations are real; the TMP1-3 (temporary installations) seismograms are faked, and have been retracted by the journals in which they were published. The peak accelerations for the TMP stations are higher than for the others (1000-1500 Gal, or 1.0-1.5 g), which would have made them important for building design criteria.
The seismograms for the permanent KIK and MTO seismic stations are real; the TMP1-3 (temporary installations) seismograms are faked, and have been retracted by the journals in which they were published. The peak accelerations for the TMP stations are higher than for the others (1000-1500 Gal, or 1.0-1.5 g), which would have made them important for building design criteria.

 

In September 2017, one of Dr. Hata’s coauthors, Dr. Hiroyuki Goto from the Disaster Prevention Research Institute of Kyoto University, placed a statement on his website in Japanese and English warning that the Kumamoto seismograms contained “wide reaching errors,” errors he explained that another seismologist had brought to his attention nine months earlier, but that he had not fully investigated, for which he apologized.  

 

Why weren’t these errors discovered before publication?

Science depends on researchers who, when asked by journal editors, volunteer to review papers for their quality, originality, persuasiveness, and importance. Reviewers can choose to be named or anonymous when their reviews are transmitted to the authors, and they can also make comments that only the editor will see. While reviewing is a time-consuming effort that does nothing to advance one’s career, it is a collective community endeavor that scientists engage in to advance, distill, and diffuse knowledge, for which we take pride. Unlike reviewers, editors are not anonymous, but they are generally also volunteers, except at Science and Nature, where they are trained science professionals. But here’s what’s key: Most reviewers assume that the data in the manuscript are authentic; they view their role as deciding if the data support the author’s conclusions, rather than conducting a forensic analysis of its veracity. And so, reviewers, editors—and was the case here, even coauthors—can miss clues that something is not right. [Full disclosure: I am a former editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research, and former Chair of the Board of Journal Editors of the American Geophysical Union, and so dealt with fraud accusations, editor-author disputes, and co-author disputes, forwarding those deemed credible for greater scrutiny. So, many of these reviewing and editing mistakes and lapses apply to myself as well].

 

Self-corrective but slow

Fortunately, science is self-corrective, in the sense that a large number of subsequent papers on the Kumamoto earthquake reported results at odds with Lin et al., and took issue with its findings. But even though publication can be fast (4 months from the earthquake to publication for Hata et al, and 6 months for Lin et al), self-correction can be slow, as practiced by the journals, and by institutions of the authors that empanel evaluation committees, as is evident from the 28-month period from publication these papers to public exposure.

 

What next?

Papers that appear in peer-reviewed journals are not necessarily right; rather, they are not obviously wrong. While that may seem like a low bar, in fact it is a demanding and critical filter. Publications that are subsequently identified as fraudulent mislead both scientists and the public, and so must be retracted. The Hata-authored papers with the faked seismograms were retracted this week by their journals. If Lin et al. (2016) is not also retracted, the damage—both to our understanding of the Kumamoto earthquake, and to the integrity of science—will continue.

 

Citation: Ross S. Stein (2019), Scientific fraud announced in two studies of the 2016 M=7.0 Kumamoto, Japan, earthquake, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.018

References

Asahi Shimbun (2019), ‘Kyoto academic used tampered quake charts in Science article,’ 27 March 2019, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201903270040.html

Hata, Y., Goto, H. and Yoshimi, M. (2016), Preliminary analysis of strong ground motions in the heavily damaged zone in Mashiki Town, Kumamoto, Japan, during the main shock of the 2016 Kumamoto Earthquake (Mw7.0) observed by a dense seismic array, Seismological Research Letters, 87, 1044-1049.

Koketsu, K., H. Kobayashi, H. Miyake (2016), “Generation process of the 14th and 16th April 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes,” http://taro.eri.u-tokyo.ac.jp/saigai/2016kumamoto/index.html#C.

Kyoto University Press Release and Linked Evaluation Committee Reports (26 March 2019) http://www.kyoto-u.ac.jp/ja/about/events_news/office/kenkyu-suishin/kenkyu-suishin/news/2018/190326_1.html

Notice of Retraction by Seismological Research Letters (2019)
https://doi.org/10.1785/0220190066

Lin, A., T. Satsukawa, M. Wang, Z. Mohammadi Asl, R. Fueta, and F. Nakajima (2016), Coseismic rupturing stopped by Aso volcano during the 2016 Mw 7.1 Kumamoto earthquake, Japan, Science, 354, doi:10.1126/science.aah4629.

NIED Hi-Net seismicity and cross-sections associated with the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake, http://www.hinet.bosai.go.jp/topics/nw-kumamoto160416/?LANG=ja (2016)

Outline of the results of the investigation into allegations of specific research misconduct that occurred at Osaka University, 15 March 2019

RetractionWatch.com (2019), https://retractionwatch.com/2019/03/18/late-researcher-faked-kumamoto-earthquake-data-university-finds/

  • Ross Stein

    Received from Culture Volcan: “I’m a geologist from France, firstly interested by volcanism. I’m the author of the Culture Volcan blog, that shares news and explanations about the different eruption on Earth, and sometimes studies about this phenomenon.

    This i why i met the A.Lin paper in 2016, suggesting the possibily that a faulting may be stopped by a magmatic reservoir. I saw these last day that there may be frauds about the paper and a commitee evaluation gave keys for the justification of it.

    My goal here is not to defend A.Lin or it’s work, no more the Evaluation Comittee: i’m not an expert able to do that. But reading your paper in Temblor, i have one important probleme.

    In your article, one of the argument from the evaluation comitee is that the mapping of the faulting is wrong, Lin indicating a faulting inside the caldera, the Evaluation Comitee mapping faults only outside the caldera.

    By Google Earth says clearly “you are right” to A.Lin. Just after the kumamoto earthquakes, Google Earth had used high resolution pictures from ZENRIN company, i a was able to follow th fracturing and its consequences far inside the caldera. You can check, if your are interested, the blogpost i wrote, in which i show some faulting inside the caldera

    https://laculturevolcan.blo

    The ZENRIN pictures seems to have been used only temporarily, but we can see faulting in the caldera on Google Earth on actual pictures from 19/04/2016, and march 2017 too. I send you with the mail some localisations of it. These correspond to the “zone”1 of A.Lin mapping.

    The situation aroud this article is complexe, and maybe there was fraud, but i hope these observations may have to have a very clear view in the situation.

    Reply from Ross Stein: “Thank you. There was indeed faulting inside the caldera, but that faulting as determined by other researchers were lateral spreads and shaking-related liquefaction and circumferential slumping features, as published in several subsequent papers. They are not right-lateral, and likely not deep. I should have discussed this in the article, and also cited those papers.”

  • Ross Stein

    Received from anonymous: “Your commentary does represent the mindset of the reviewer quite well. We reviewers trust the science. We are looking for the soundness of the interpretations, the novelty, and the contribution to earthquake or volcano hazards.”

  • Ross Stein

    Tweeted by Yo Fukushima (Tohoku Univ.): “This excellently summarizes what I have known (some parts only vaguely), with sound explanations about the nature of our scientific activity in terms of publication. I think no one else, including Japanese journalists/experts, can present this at this level.”

  • Ross Stein

    Tweeted by Bob Geller (Univ. Tokyo): 米国地震地質学者ロス・スタイン氏@rstein357 は丁寧に近年の阪大と京大の地震学における研究不正事件を説明する。英語で書かれたが分かりやすい。おす

  • Ross Stein

    Received from a Professor: “We read Lin et al. (2016) in our seismology group meeting, and were very intrigued by the main finding. Of course, none of us thought that there was any issue with the observations. I will make sure that we spend some time on this “update” and how it could happen. I think it is great that you are turning these sorry episodes into something positive and educational. We all can benefit from some direction to navigate these waters.”

  • Ross Stein

    Received from Aurelie Trilla (French Atomic Energy Center): “It’s scandalous. It has become so easy to manipulate data and to make things appear the way we want… but scientists have the duty to be careful about not changing the reality.. Science is science, not science fiction…

    Now, your article also discusses the peer-review system. Many things can be said about this one… To be honest i really dislike it the way it is done : anonymous reviewers. I truly believe that there should be no such thing as anonymous reviewers. First, this would allow criticisms to remain courteous, and second, this would clearly help to identify potential conflicts of interests. This has happened to me…
    Nonetheless if reviewers have to also checked all the data this will become very difficult for editors to find reviewers… This won’t happen. I already spend myself so much time reviewing papers and writing (very) long comments to improve the manuscripts and figures. I can’t see myself checking all the data behind the authors’ words, especially now that more and more data are put together… Plus, we would need the source codes for processing them, don’t you think?

    I guess frauds show the limits of the system, especially when fundings and recognition come into play.”

  • Ross Stein

    Received from Wendy Bohon, Educator at the U.S. seismic consortium, IRIS: “Hopefully your work here outlining the specifics of the issues with the papers in question, as well as the broader concerns that are highlighted, will start some important conversations and pull these problems into the general consciousness (especially for early career folks).”

  • Ross Stein

    Received from Weng Yuen Kam (Structural Engineer at Beca, New Zealand): “Thanks for sharing Ross. It is great that these research data are validated and in this case rebuked. Unfortunately I have seen too many scientific papers get published with much less rigor and validation. Many analyses are so complex that it will be impossible to check the validity of the analysis without carrying parallel analysis.”

  • Ross Stein

    Received from Steve Pryor, P.E., S.E. (Simpson Strong-Tie, Calif.): Amazed that this would even happen.

  • Ross Stein

    Received from Rémy Bossu (European Mediterranean Seismological Centre): “I had not heard about it and find it very interesting. I still wonder how an author may believe that such a massive fraud on many aspects of a dataset of a studied earthquake could possibly remain undetected.”

  • Ross Stein

    In my experience, some scientists are certain that they are right. They believe this gives them extra latitude—or special privileges—to present the data in a manner that supports what they know to be true. In their own minds, it is not fraud, but rather making truth evident to others. Further, journals reward unambiguous explanations backed by overwhelming evidence, rather than uncertain possibilities teased out of conflicting and messy evidence, and careers advance on the basis of those journal acceptances. Scientists today are also inundated with review requests, and so we all try to get them done in a half day. That is not enough time to be sufficiently skeptical.

  • Ross Stein

    Received from Prof. Meredith Nettles, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University: “Thank you for writing about these cases, and about the general topic of scientific dishonesty. With respect to the underlying problem: Although some scientists may be intent on deception from the beginning, I think most of those who commit fraud are not. I suspect many first-time fraudsters are responding to the phenomenon you describe in your response to Rémy Bossu: Deeply believing they are, or deeply wanting to be, ‘right’ about an interpretation not supported by the data. Or, they are responding to other forms of temptation: They want their work to be more important or higher-profile, or they have made a mistake in an abstract/talk/media interview that they are embarrassed to correct. And then, I suspect that those who have committed fraud once are very likely to become serial offenders. Fraud turns out to be easy, and sometimes effective. They don’t get caught; and they’ve got to cover their tracks from the last lie. Of course, I do not know what motivated the particular individuals in the cases you wrote about to commit scientific fraud. But I hope that we can move towards a more open and frank discussion of the underlying causes, in order to avoid them.”