Responding to critics of blogging the Moriguchi iPS cell story

I’m getting some heat from some stem cell folks who think I should not have blogged about the Moriguchi iPS cell transplant case.

Their argument seems to be it would have been preferable to either (A) not blog about the story at all or only minimally so fewer people would know about it or (B) let professional journalists handle it in a more “measured” manner.

I don’t really buy either argument.

Let’s go over the timeline.

On October 10th, Hisashi Moriguchi reportedly presented his poster at the NYSCF meeting on supposed human transplants of iPS cells.

The top daily newspaper in all of Japan, Yomiuri Shimbun, published a huge story on this across their front page, above the fold October 10th edition stating it all as fact.

For those favoring argument (A) about downplaying this story, please note that Yomiuri has a circulation of 10 million. This was a huge deal and there would be no hiding it.

Earlier the previous day, October 9th, my colleague Doug Sipp who works in Japan and I had started a wonderful, multi-day email discussion of the key issues related to potential future clinical use of IPS cells. In part I was talking with Doug because of a blog post I was (coincidentally timing-wise) writing at that time on potential clinical use of iPS cells: Are iPS cells being rushed to the clinic or has their time come?

On the evening of October 10th, Doug filled me in on the Yomiuri newspaper story. I looked into it.

As best as I could tell there was absolutely nothing else on the Internet about this story. I emailed Moriguchi himself, but got no reply.

Later in the evening of October 10, I put up a very neutral blog post on this hugely important story. My goal: get the word out so this could be examined further and clarified ASAP.

At 7:36AM the next morning (October 11) B.D. Colen, Senior Communications Officer at Harvard, posted a comment on my post:

Harvard University, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Harvard Medical School, and Massachusetts Hospital have issued the following joint statement:

“Hisashi Moriguchi was a visiting fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital from 1999-2000, and has not been associated with MGH or Harvard since that time. No clinical trials related to Dr. Moriguchi’s work have been approved by institutional review boards at either Harvard University or MGH.”

B. D. Colen
Sr. Communications Officer for University Science
Harvard University
Director of Communications
Harvard Stem Cell Institute

On October 10th and for a good part of the day on October 11th, it was not at all clear the story was entirely false even if I was already 100% convinced Harvard had not approved the supposed transplants.

Moriguchi could have done the transplants without permission or institutional approval. Some people I talked to believed this was the case.

In subsequent blog posts, including one on October 11, I also defended Harvard and then later that day I made it clear in an early opinion piece that I believed the Moriguchi story was in all probability bunk.

I talked to many reporters and science writers who called me on the phone and emailed me about this case, and I told them I thought it was bogus. In this way, I hope I helped to get the word out further that this whole thing was looking more like fantasy and less like reality.

The next day on October 12th, Nature and Science both first published articles on the case.

Now the 20/20 hindsight folks are saying the story was obviously bunk from the beginning and I shouldn’t have blogged about it.

However, I don’t see how a lack of openness and discussion of this case would have been helpful.

Do you?

Tens of thousands of people around the world, importantly including many thousands in Japan where the newspaper story was probably read by millions, learned the facts about this case and read Harvard’s statement only via my blog.

To me that is critically important and I hope that it was a way I could help make a positive contribution to providing accurate, timely information about this situation.

9 Comments


  1. I’m not following the logic that you shouldn’t have blogged about it. It was an interesting (and important!) story whether it was true or false. And more to the point, if you or Doug or any of the other people who regularly blog about and discuss stem cells don’t take the time to correct misinformation and propaganda, doesn’t that simply allow fraudulent claims to propagate?


  2. You did some great work on this and deserve a very big thank you from a lot of people–not criticism. Still trying to figure out how and why the NYSCF selected his Poster to present at its big annual conference. Is there any screening procedure at all? Who (if anyone) evaluates submissions? If this had not been on the front -page of Yomiuri and he had simply presented would anyone have questioned this at all? And what about all the previous conferences and papers? Would love to get some follow-up on these questions. Have you heard from the New York Stem Cell Foundation? These are important questions?


  3. As I wrote in my piece Yesterday – http://bit.ly/P3t9Z8
    we can see the advantage of “stem cell twittersphere-blogosphere” versus static news in scientific journalism (Nature News). This story demonstrated the great value of indie-blogging and twittering. I don’t see any basis and reasons for “not blogging/ twitting this story”. Contrary, this story was extremely good for microblogging!

    Paul is an indie-blogger (means he doesn’t get paid for specific content), so he can write whatever he wants, whatever he feels. So, he did! Of course, all criticism is very welcomed in comments. That’s what the whole blogging thing about – discussion! In this particular case, Paul’s blogging/ twitting was just great!

    There were no interference with major scientific news outlet – Nature News. Cyranovski did good investigation too and posted it after the claims were debunked by Paul. Fine. But, I have few suggestions for Nature News:
    (1) Wouldn’t be nice to credit a person who debunk these claims first? We’re scientists, and, I think, scientific journalists should credit other people for priority. That’s what we like in science.
    As a consequence, many folks think that Nature and Cyranovski were the first who debunk it. More people read Nature and trust it. Very tight community knows about this blog and Paul’s investigation. Apparently, Nature doesn’t care about indie-folks, bloggers and online discussions.
    (2) Wouldn’t be nice to link to the place where “the whole action is going on”? Particularly, in this case – link to Paul’s blog and twitter (there was an aggregator of all tweets on this story). NPG invest a huge amount of time to encourage scientists to go online and discuss, they creates a lot of online and social tools for scientists. But why don’t you mention and link to online discussions/ communities? Link is so simple!
    Why non-scientific mass media (BoingBoing as example) give a credit and link to it, but Nature doesn’t?
    As a consequence, NatureNews investigations didn’t capture all of details of this case. But some scientists really like details! Twitter community didn’t miss anything! Well, who said Nature news should capture everything? Right, but, again, link to it could be a nice thing to do!
    (3) Nature, Science and other major scientific outlets, consistently fail to encourage any discussion under their news coverage and articles. But some blogs (for example this one) and twitter communities are very good at productive scientific valuable discussions. Why not encourage readers to go to these communities, discuss things for sake of rapid progression of reproducible science?
    In the era of internet, static news are not good enough for rapid productive valuable discussions. NPG’s own experience demonstrated that scientists are not coming to discuss thing on NPG web pages. But right now, they are jumping to twittersphere, instead. When scientists and scientific press will realize that?
    Now, I’d like to ask: Is this really the best of scientific journalism?

    All 3 things I’ve mentioned above just a suggestions how to improve (and make really the best), not a requirements. It’s just my opinion. The coverage by scientific press and by indie-folks (blogging/ twitting) should peacefully coexist, complete each other, link each other and synergistically filter valid information, do investigations.

    To conclude, in this particular case, scientific journalism was not as good as indie-coverage by blogging (Paul) and twitting. I think, the major scientific publishes and news outlets should realize and acknowledge that.


  4. Fully supportive of how you handled this Paul. You played an important role in how this played out. What kind of “IPS cell” blogger would you be if you didn’t immediately pick up this story and run with it until it fully played out. The only time I cringed even a little bit was when you (and more Alexey) seemed to be taking issue with how Nature decided to handle their reporting of it. No need to take them on. We all know who played what role and we all know what happens to bloggers that don’t play well with others and give credit where credit is due! 🙂


  5. I support the reporting of the fraud. It was a service to science, the institutions and the general public 10 million of whom were potential readers where the news puff piece was displayed. I think we could also mention YouTube viewers are in the billions and this purported to support scientific discovery and delivers false expectations and denigrates the reputation of the industry. I think it would have been a challenge for those with only an abstract to pick this up as a rogue poster as the poster may have differed substantially from the original abstract.

    As for those urging silence and waiting for it to be handled internally, in a word it wasn’t. As it was you handled this with reasonable discretion going directly to Harvard etc. Really a lesson for those who claim you only promote ES or iPS to the detriment of Adult cells obviously not true here!

    I think it would have been gracious for Nature and all to give you a shout out seeing as you laid all the groundwork but perhaps others were simultaneously working quietly from the inside out to confirm the validity at the same time it was spotted here.

    Thanks for alerting us all and to Doug Sipp who brought this to your attention. Great that he is fluent in Japanese and conversant with iPS technology and bio ethical boundaries and could confirm the actual language interpretation.


  6. This could be an opportune time to review his relationships with other authors in his past articles as many of these authors are named on earlier papers.

    Housekeeping could be appropriate in that scientists in the regenerative medicine industry could verify the papers they are named on as having made substantial contributions, data transparency would also be a plus as would the elimination of salami slicing.

    My other wish list would be that grading of these papers take place so we can be confident in their levels of evidence. A good place to start would be with the guidelines for all kinds of research as listed on http://www.equator-network.org/ If this is complex some great comsumer friendly guides are available at http://www.caspinternational.org/?o=1012


  7. Great job Paul! Your response on this matter is one of the many reasons I consider your blog regular reading (although I do get behind from time to time). This was excellent journalism on your part.


  8. I thought you handled the story very well as a blogger/citizen journalist. It was important to get the story out quick so that other professionally trained journalist/other citizen journalists can help with the fact checking. Plus, if the story is true, it’s big news and the rest of the stem cell community (many of whom are following your blog) deserves to learn about it.

    Also, I think by blogging about this as a scientist to the public, you are helping the public to evaluate the news and judge for themselves whether they also believe this or not. That is definitely helping the public to perceive the news in a more “measured” manner.

Comments are closed.