Beginning of End for STAP Cell Story? Possible Outcomes

The end of the STAP cell saga?
The end of the STAP cell saga?

A host of problems have emerged related to the two Nature papers on STAP cells and other publications by some of the same authors.

It’s only been just shy of 6 weeks since these papers came out, but doesn’t it feel like about 5 years?

Where will this all end? (update in 2020: closer to the final ending, here’s a post you might find interesting: Whatever happened to the STAP cell scientists including Haruko Obokata?)

Let’s first think about where it began and where it is now. This may helps us to predict when and how the field might finally be able to say or write “The End” (image from Wikimedia) on the STAP saga.

Interestingly the most serious STAP issue right now is not what I would have predicted at the beginning.

At first, once upon a time, I thought it likely that the most troubling point would be that the STAP cell methods could prove extremely difficult to reproduce by independent labs.

While replication has indeed not been reported, that’s not the biggest problem overall for STAP. The idea that STAP replication is the big problem and its resolution would be key to STAP redemption is now a myth.

Instead, the most vexing concerns relate to alleged serious issues in the STAP papers themselves and problems in other published work by some STAP authors.

This nightmarish stew of troubles includes multiple increasingly serious allegations of plagiarism, image duplication, image manipulation, and more unpleasant ingredients.

What this all means is that even if the STAP method is reproduced by other labs (and that remains possible), major STAP problems are going to remain.

So what are the main possible outcomes for the STAP stem cell situation?

  • Editorial retraction. As a result of its investigation Nature editorially retracts one or both of the STAP papers. This would be a very major action, but one that would unambiguously show that Nature is taking this troubling situation seriously. Why would Nature even consider such a severe step that essentially is also an admission of a major problem? For the journal, retraction, as painful as it would be, could be the first step to putting this disaster behind them.
  • Retraction attempt by some authors. Of course Nature may not choose to retract either STAP paper. However, a subset of STAP authors could ask that one or both of the papers be retracted, and in fact. Dr Teru Wakayama has just asked the other authors to do a retraction. At this point it seems highly improbable that all the authors would agree to retraction.
  • No retractions of either paper, leaving a painful, drawn out scandal. It is easy to see how the main parties involved in the STAP stem cell fiasco (some of the authors, Nature, RIKEN, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard) may not want any retractions. Who would? So there could well be no retraction. On the other hand given the seriousness of the allegations related to the papers, retraction may in fact be in the long term best interest of Nature and the institutions involved to start to put this behind them. The STAP situation will not spontaneously resolve or fade away.
  • No retractions and no major fallout. This one seems like more a dream than a possible reality at this point. Based on the facts as we know them today, I don’t see any reasonable chance that the STAP situation just goes away without leaving a mark…really a scar. This situation is not one that can be explained by a simple “oops” or “just a few simple mistakes here folks, nothing to see, move along…” A lack of retractions would still not mean an absence of bad consequences and some of these negative outcomes may well harm the entire stem cell field for a time.
  • And finally….Search for a ‘fall guy’ to blame. This possibility is not mutually exclusive with the others, but is in fact likely to occur with any of them. It seems to me quite probable that the parties involved in STAP are on the verge of a historic break up. RIKEN and Harvard may well end up pointing fingers at each. Some of the scientists involved may do the same against each other.

The bottom line is that none of us know what comes next for STAP, but it could get ugly or even outright tragic really fast….or it may drag out for many months or even years as a slow tortuous process. Either way it’s hard to imagine anything like a “and they lived happily ever after” ending.

36 thoughts on “Beginning of End for STAP Cell Story? Possible Outcomes”

  1. First of all, although it is a Japanese, it is amusing that a paper must be written in English.
    The human being in English-speaking countries is too advantageous.

    1. Scholars have always written in foreign languages. For 1000 years in east Asia, it was Chinese. In Europe it was Greek, Latin, French, and now English. Anyway, those students who can’t write good scientific English, often can’t write logical scientific Japanese either.

    2. My mother tongue is French. I went to the UK to do my PhD; had to write it in English. What’s the problem?
      Science is an international discipline. As such, it is communicated in English. I do not see what is amusing.
      If you only want to write in Japanese for Japanese people, don’t ever do science. It is a matter of choice, and you cannot blame your failure to learn English on the fact that some people are born in the English-speaking countries.

    3. Obokata copied and pasted not only the introduction but also the list of references (that she does not cite in the main text), illustration pictures, AND the data figures (cell morphology pictures from company websites). This is not about inability to speak and write English. It is strictly about plagiarism.

  2. For people in academic field, I wonder:

    1, is it possible that Obokata-san did not learn how to use citations when creating her manuscript when she was a student.
    However she was somehow allowed to graduate from the school.
    Is it possible in any graduate schools?

    2, Is it a time to reconsider about the peer-review system? As long as they count on this system, any publishers do not have to be really involved with those issues. They can simply change EiC/AEs or renew editorial members. It means if they can maintain higher IF, they are not going to lose anything?

    3. Covering letter and reviewers’ signatures should be signed as contract formats. The submission system needs to be more flexible to prove and gain credibility of each person involved with the review process.

  3. At the universities I have attended we were failed if there was plagiarism and this was monitored by multiple electronic plagiarism checkers. All papers must be submitted electronically as well as the paper copies just for this purpose. Would it be possible someone translated the thesis to English and took a shortcut? I find it very odd that 33 pages and more would get through. Having used these checkers, I know they are extremely sensitive and even pick up blogs, NIH public materials and references from Wikipedia rather than from citation software.

  4. Have you people on this blog gone mad? Whether the discovery is correct is not determined by the duplication of a figure in the paper or what have you but by replicating the discovery or not. People here seem to misunderstand the scientific process: it’s not about the paper but about the discovery. So for all the people commenting here: if you really want to find out whether this is correct, go and replicate it yourself. Try to replicate it properly, not using cultured fibroblasts or 35 week old mice. If you don’t have the resources to replicate, then wait for the verdict from the serious stem cell labs which are performing those experiments. To try to determine whether a discovery is true through trial by the media including this blog is a travesty and a cheapening of the scientific process.

    1. another scientist

      So. A brief recap of where we are:

      1. Everyone’s been trying to make STAP cells. No one can replicate the results in their own lab (yet), including one of the most respected stem cell scientists on the original paper. Of course, this isn’t proof that the STAP technique does not work, however it is clear that it is not easy as first suggested.

      Note: if you “a scientist” have made STAP cells in your own lab, why not share on this blog how you did it?

      2. It is very easy to detect that a number of the images have been manipulated (to the point of fakery) in the STAP Nature article.

      3. Serious questions have been raised about the scientific credibility of some key results. Most notably: does the STAP process really cause cells to change gender? Reverse V(D)J recombination events?

      Taking #2 and #3 together, there is overwhelming evidence that the STAP papers contain (some) forged data and should be retracted at this time.

      1. Let me elaborate on my comment above: Most people here including perhaps the host are calling for the paper to be retracted whether the basic discovery is true or not. To me this is madness. I agree of course that the mistakes in the paper make it less likely for the results to be true (the results were shocking to begin with). But the real test for validity is the replication. This is not your average paper- including most Nature papers- where mistakes in the paper can alert us not to waste our time on it. It is a claimed groundbreaking discovery and many labs are trying to replicate. So we will know the answer soon. Are you suggesting those efforts should be abandoned because of the mistakes in the papers? And why are the results of those efforts prejudged?

        Your point 1: The ‘replication attempts’ presented on this blog were a joke since most used other source cells, did various things differently etc. If anyone does exactly what the authors describe, they should write a paper and publish or post it somewhere, not post one image of random cells. Btw the ‘ease’ of the technique is also irrelevant frankly- if cells can become totipotent with stress it will require a major revision of our understanding of cell fate even if the efficiency of conversion is very low.

        2 and 3- Yes, agree there are serious problems with the paper, but as I said above if the discovery proves to be irreplicable then the status of the paper is an afterthought because the academic reputation of the authors will be destroyed anyway.

        1. another scientist

          1. redux: When I said “everyone’s been trying to make STAP cells”, I meant that literally, I wasn’t referring only to the 10 or so reports on this blog.

          On the day after the Nature papers were published, people all over the world went into their labs and tried to replicate the results. The potential payoff is/was huge: if the technique was as simple and effective as first advertised, and the cells made were truly stem cells, then it eliminates the need for iPS cells. Yes, lots of cell types have been tried, including spleens from P7 Oct4-GFP pups. Nothing works (yet).

          By all means, if you “a scientist” want to continue to try to make STAP cells do! But know that many competent people – some of the top labs in the stem cell field – have tried, and (so far) failed. Failure does not constitute proof of anything, but at some point you do learn to stop looking for unicorns.

    2. I think you’re mistaken – it is, at least partly, about the paper since this is how scientific findings are communicated. Alleged image duplication raises questions about whether the findings are correct, since what reason is there to inappropriately duplicate images other than to create data that does not actually exist? Even if the findings turn out to be true, if the alleged misconduct (i.e. data manipulation and plagiarism) is proven, then the ethical lapses will hardly be more forgivable given the time and resources spent investigating/reproducing results due to the suspicions raised as a result. The bottom line is we all have a duty to conduct ourselves ethically, both in the way we conduct our research AND the way we communicate it.

    3. John the Misanderstandin Scientist

      Mmmm, I am sorry to not have understood modern science. Next time I make a groundbreaking discovery, I will write about it in a lousy manuscript that goes against all rules of scientific reporting, thereby inviting doubts on the results themselves and on my scientific integrity. It does not matter, anyway, since only the discovery is important.

      Does it make sense? Not to me.

  5. I think you guys have been too harsh to Ms. Obakata. She is just a 30 year old girl who made mistakes. You are destroying her career. She has been bombarded by the media and as far as I know, she is deeply depressed and would not even answer an email. Even Hwang woo-suk got a chance to correct himself. I feel like you guys just envied her at the beginning and were dismayed that her finding may belittle your own research. Now you caught her up on her honest errors and are mob prosecuting her. The science community is dark…

    1. I’m 27 years old and I would never duplicate a Figure from previous publications, insert digitally a lane in a gel, copy 33 pages from NIH website in my PhD thesis, hidden data that is the main point of my publication.
      I do not think that the use of my thesis picture later in a paper supposed to be a different experiment is honest error.

      (XXXX edited for content)

    2. The job of scientists is to tell the truth. This is more important than making a great discovery or getting on TV. Sometimes we make honest mistakes. But in this case, as Prof. Noriko Osumi said, the large number of willful manipulations of data go far beyond any possible interpretation of them being innocent mistakes. Some young female scientists around me are extremely upset. Young scientists are competing in a fair way with each other for the small number of available science positions in Japan. (XXXX edited for content)

    3. There is nothing honest about plagiarism of this magnitude (if indeed it is found to be true). The fact that some are defending this type of behavior (not to say that she is necessarily guilty of the alleged conduct, which is a separate issue) doesn’t inspire confidence in the published record, which is a huge part of the problem.

    4. Yes, I also tried to defend Dr. Obokata against all this, but it is, just like Prof, Wakayama himself realized, not anymore a tenable position. The fact that she is a young lady already leading a lab at RIKEN, so rare by Japanese standard, should not prevent justice to proceed, because that would be, in itself, discrimination.
      Her career has been marred by her own wrondoing, and it is only fair she now faces the consequences, that are on a par with the size of the lie that constitute the STAP story.
      I wish this to be a lesson for all scientists.

    5. I strongly disagree. No one has been “too harsh to Ms. Obokata.” The fact is that if the alleged misconduct is true, “just a 30-year-old girl who made mistakes” is no excuse. There is no excuse for research misconduct at any age or experience level. Learning about ethics is a part of PhD and postdoctoral training and should start even before then. This is not at all a case of envy or jealousy. Rather, it is a case of honest researchers who have worked very hard to do good work taking offense at someone who may have betrayed the public trust, which could hurt the entire field. Any researcher knows that ethical breaches cannot be simply excused as “just a 30-year-old girl who made mistakes” – we all know that there is too much at stake in the field. Furthermore, calling her “just a 30-year-old girl who made mistakes” is an insult to her and what she has achieved. She is a PhD graduate and a principal investigator at a prestigious institution who has published in Nature. She is simply being held to the same standard as anyone else in the same position would and should be- increased scrutiny comes hand-in-hand with fame. As for Dr. Hwang, he did get a chance to correct himself- AFTER he was punished for his misconduct. No one is saying that Dr. Obokata should not receive a similar second chance. However, one difference is that Dr. Hwang was already established when he engaged in misconduct, whereas Dr. Obokota’s career thus far appears to be based on STAP cells; therefore, it may not be as easy for her to recover if she did in fact engage in misconduct. However, if she did engage in misconduct that ends up destroying her career, she only has herself to blame.

    6. Regarding “honest errors,” gel splicing to show “champion data” cannot be an “honest error” because by definition it is a deliberate manipulation. Additionally, it is very difficult to believe that re-using images from unrelated non-STAP experiments in the doctoral dissertation and stating that the images show STAP cells could be an “honest error.” Generally, the number and pattern of errors and extent of misrepresentation in the paper make it difficult to believe the errors were “honest.” Of course, only a proper investigation will tell. Regardless, even if the errors were “honest,” “honest” errors are still grounds for retraction of journal articles.

  6. Now, this is an end of these two papers. It is not important when or even if they are retracted, because there is little left scientifically with these papers. To be cynical, it might be worth keeping them as a testament to the (lack of) scientific competence of this jounal, its reviewers, and the senior co-authors. Sounds so abusurd.

    What is more important for the community will be to understand the cause of this scandal.

    XXXX (edit done here for content not compliant with blog comment policy)

    Trust has been abused and wasted, which is why we feel sad.

  7. In many scandals of this kind, the story ends up being fairly prolonged, but it drops off the radar eventually because most people have made up their minds fairly early.

    In this case I would suspect that the papers will be retracted and then the people involved will argue over who’s responsible. Some authors will disavow STAP and move on to other projects. Others will stick to their guns, and eventually publish new results which they will claim vindicate the STAP idea, but rightly or wrongly, they will not be believed.

  8. I think the papers should be retracted, even if STAP somehow works. In Nature paper, they clearly lied about TCR, they clearly lied about STAP efficiency and they clearly lied about the cells that can be transformed. The question of reprograming vs. selecting native stem cells remains unsolved after new TCR information. Thus, the papers deserves retraction.

    Once proved that STAP really works, they should submit then new (and honest) data to a new journal,. being very clear of the limitations

  9. Here is a short news clip from ANN, a private network.

    The tape begins with a Riken spokesman saying they are considering whether the papers should be withdrawn. The clip reports that Riken expects to make an announcement regarding their conclusions on Friday (this differs from earlier reports saying an announcement would be made tomorrow).

    In the Japanese news context several things are significant.
    (1) The spokesman appeared on camera with his name given, as opposed to an off-camera briefing on background, which suggests a strong committment by Riken to the information being released.
    (2) That they openly discussed the possibility of retracting the papers, which suggests they are headed in that direction and it’s sort of a trial balloon.
    (3) (no mentioned in this tape) The government’s chief spokesman also openly mentioned the possibility of retraction and suggested Riken should move forward in dealing with the problem.

    I suppose now we have to wait till Friday to see what happens.

    1. This is crazy! How could this happen without her thesis committee noticing? The difference between the sections copied from the NIH versus her own writing are absolutely startling. Here’s some of her own writing:

      “Sphere formation is recognizes as one of isolation method of adult stem cells. Because, stem cells should hold a strong proliferative potential and self-renewal potency, sphere formation is recognized as a result of those potencies. Interestingly, as presented by neurospheres, some sphere forming stem cells show gene expression over lapping with ES cells.”

      “If stem cells which can cross the germ layer lineages exist in adult body, we assume that they should be very distinct from ES cells because ES cells were not native cells existing in native organisms. ES cells are artificial.”

      1. And here is a comment that underlines the weakness of Japanese academic degrees at the international level. It is required in some university you submit a part of your thesis in English, but many “established” supervisors will only read the Japanese section and not care so much about the English section. It has to be there in the paperwork, but it is not really considered important. Most of the supervisors themselves will lack proper English skills, anyway.
        Nature’s lousy reviewing process, weak Japanese academic system…Obokata’s story sure ripples far!

    2. heh,

      i bet there are many a more doctoral students who may have summarized, paragraph by paragraph this very same site.

      don’t quote me on that, but i’m pretty sure the idea generalizes to all areas of academia. find doctoral student theses on sexy ideas, check the NIH/de-facto source for concrete ideas, and see if they overlap.

      i won’t go further with my conspiracy theories here out of respect for dr knoepfler

      1. Yes, that is clearly unacceptable. I appears that the supervison of Dr. Obokata was very lousy, and all her “mentors” are to blame for not having guided her properly. (xxxx edit for content)
        On my previous comment about Japanese academic system, the research level in Japan in excellent, but I meant it tend to be, understandably, a little bit insular.

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