Momentum for STAP paper retraction building

I’m hearing from multiple sources that momentum is building in Japan and even inside RIKEN itself for retraction of the STAP cell papers.

This whole situation is a tragedy on so many levels and has become a no-win situation, but is it so bad at this point that retraction could possibly be the least terrible of the entirely bad array of options?stap cells, retraction

Why would some folks in Japan and even inside RIKEN think that retraction potentially could be the wisest option?

Some RIKEN scientists may be thinking that it would be dramatically worse for RIKEN if Nature were to go first and editorially retract one or both of the STAP papers. Is it also possible that Brigham & Women’s/Harvard could do a retraction first that in some way might make RIKEN look like the main party responsible? Some are worried about that. It seems the two institutions are largely now on different sides on STAP. A potentially bizarre situation could come to be as well if RIKEN retracts the Nature letter, but the Nature article is not retracted for various reasons including disagreement amongst its authors.

Of course it is difficult to know if retractions by Nature or by Harvard/Brigham & Women’s are at all likely and based on history they may indeed remain unlikely at this time, but it’s a high-risk gamble to count on anything for sure about the frenetic STAP situation at this point.

A RIKEN retraction statement, especially if they pull the trigger in the next few weeks or even sooner, could be short and go something like this: “There are multiple complicated issues here that go well beyond the scope of a relatively short investigation and which cannot be addressed by simple corrections to the papers so at this time what is best for science in Japan and for the stem cell field is to retract the papers. At some future point new papers on STAP stem cells may be submitted once the situation is clearer and if the process has been robustly and independently replicated.”

I personally hope that other labs will replicate STAP cells/STAP-SC at some point, but so much else has gone wrong with this situation that unfortunately even independent STAP replication is not close to a full solution any more. Further, even if STAP replication is in the cards for the future, it may not come for months or even close to a year. In the mean time the situation would continue to develop unpredictably in a risky way. Of course retraction has its own risks too.

In fact, no matter what decisions are made, the risks here are high for all of science in Japan, the journal Nature, and the entire stem cell field as well.

29 thoughts on “Momentum for STAP paper retraction building”

  1. I am an amateur and an outsider but just wanted to point out that there’s also a political dimension to this.
    The Japanese government is expected to decide on the 12th of March to give RIKEN a special status so that it can pay extra to their employees (unusual for such a semi-governmental body).
    So both RIKEN and the government have reasons to contain or at least evade the problem in order to make the plan go through.


  2. Please look at the next to last page of the Riken document that another poster uploaded:

    It’s a bit telling that the name of the overall Riken director is written “NOYORI Ryoji” (family name first, in caps) while the names of all the other lab and unit directors are written with family name last (e.g., Susumu Tonegawa).

    The background to this is that for the past 100 years Japanese people wrote their names in Roman letters with the family name last. In about 2000 a right-wing dominated govt advisory body decided this was wrong, and had to be reversed. (The govt advisory board recommended writing the names in romanization in the same order, family name first, as in the Japanese language). As you can see, only Riken’s overall director, Dr. Noyori, complied with this whimsical govt decision, while all the other lab directors ignored it, as almost all scientists in Japan do.

    It may be a mistake to read to much into this, but it might tend to suggest that Dr. Noyori is on the govt side. In any case literally demonstrates that not all of Riken’s top people are on the same page.

    Anyway, Riken is under the govt, although it is formally a govt controlled corporation, rather than directly being part of the govt. Govt officials are usually rotated in July. Probably most scientists in Riken would like to get the issue of the Obokata et al. papers resolved ASAP. On the other hand, the govt officials responsible for Riken are incentivized to drag out the investigation till July, so that when the matter is finally concluded in won’t have happened on their watch.

    The pressure will have to build up to enormous levels in order to overcome this structural problem. Barring that, nothing will be concluded till after July. If that’s the case it will be unfortunate for science in Japan in general and at Riken in particular, but that’s how the Japanese system works.

    1. D (though not the same as above)

      Was the presentation given by Dr. Noyori? No.
      Was the document prepared by Dr. Noyori? No.
      Was he consulted about how his name is spelled on that slide? It seems unlikely. He certainly has better things to do.
      Is he consistently referred to as “NOYORI Ryoji” in RIKEN documents? No. Have a look at the RIKEN website for instance (, or at the reports of the Advisory Council (

      One slide from an old presentation from a RIKEN employee does not indicate anything about whether Dr. Noyori is “on the government side”. Which government, by the way? The current one, the one from 2000? At the time of the presentation (July 2010), the ruling party was the centre-left Democratic Party of Japan.

      Your other points about the risk of delays in the response to the STAP issue are interesting, and probably valid, but I think you are over-interpreting the name spelling.
      As you note yourself, it is very risky to read too much into that file.

  3. I subscribe to the notion that this level of fabrication (not errors) is an act of terrorism to our community. There are real consequences here, not only the actual resources that have been wasted, but also what could have been. Accountability is most important at this point.

  4. I understand that Professor Vacant, a co-author to the Nature paper, who has been quite quiet so far, is intending to release his own methods for reproducing the results set in the paper. Why is Wakayama talking about retraction so soon before Vacanti does this, if indeed he does. Is Wakayama crumbling under a media frenzy?


      Apparently, there was no communication between Wakayama and Vacanti before Wakayama decided to call for a retraction.

      Since the recently released protocol was not authored by either of them (Wayakama himself said in the above news that he found contradicting information in this protocol – no evidence of TCR rearrangement for example), there probably has been no communication among the Vacanti’s group, Riken, and Wakayama lately for whatever the reason.

      1. Any communication between author is prohibited by RIKEN because RIKEN is still investigating their research.

        1. Really? How would (a subset of) the authors be able to write up the recently released “hints” document without communicating with each other?

  5. Retractions does not spell the end for a research area. Take a look at these posts on Retraction Watch

    Pamela Ronald’s very public retraction of her work on quorum sensing and the subsequent publication of validated data once they had sorted out the SNAFU’s also shows that retraction should not be an issue, but part of the process of publishing and evaluation of data

    1. Hi Dave,
      You are right and this kind of broader view of retraction and the overall historical context may be reasons why some of the scientists involved, notably Dr. Wakayama, are favoring retraction at this time.

      1. Given that Nature tried to pull the same thing on our area Dr knoepfler, i thought it was important to get the retraction.

        That “Symmetry & Dance” paper was an absolute sham, but it got published because the sociologist who was lead author was naive and thought “computers can do anything if i just ask it to!”. this lead to a catastrophic publication, where the computing people kept quiet because they wanted to brag about being in Nature. Of course the methods weren’t able to mathematically reduce motion into a compact representation, but it took over 8 years for the retraction to occur.

        now that it happened, i am relieved because the technical work associated with that paper was very poor (arguably the prototypical example of BS in our area) and, at some level, did set a precedent that was both incorrect and detrimental to our area.

        finally, we are on the right track and we can start to look forward. i can tell you that delaying the retraction most definitely had an impact on the rate of progression in our area (we like to build on ideas).

        humorously enough, one of the perpetrators took his page down and started running for the hills. turned out he was a corporate computer crony who pretended he had massive computer skills.

  6. nice prediction dr knoepfler:

    Co-Author of Stem-Cell Paper Asks for Retraction
    Teruhiko Wakayama Says Stem-Cell Research Had ‘Crucial Mistakes’

    TOKYO—The co-author of two breakthrough papers on making stem cells said Monday he had asked for the papers to be retracted, citing “crucial mistakes” in the research.

    The decision is the latest and perhaps heaviest blow against the research, which was published in Nature in January and has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks.

    A spokeswoman for Nature said the journal was still investigating the matter and declined further comment.

    Some scientists have said they have had trouble replicating the results, and Japan’s Riken Center for Developmental Biology, where the work took place, opened an investigation last month into alleged irregularities in images used in the papers.

    Teruhiko Wakayama of Yamanashi University in Japan, a co-author of both papers published in Nature, said he has asked the lead author of the papers, Haruko Obokata, to retract them.

    “There is no more credibility when there are such crucial mistakes,” he said in an email to The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t elaborate on what the mistakes were.

    Dr. Wakayama said the stem cells he had received from Dr. Obokata may not have been what he thought they were. The authors said they had converted mouse blood cells into an embryonic-like state simply by dipping them in a mild acid solution, creating what they called STAP cells, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency.

    Dr. Wakayama has said he was in charge of creating chimera mice that had cells from both the host embryo and the STAP cells. On Monday, he said he wasn’t sure he actually received STAP cells and said he was handing over the cells in his possession to a third party for investigation. “I myself don’t know what I used in my experiments,” he said in the email.

    Riken confirmed that Dr. Wakayama had asked for a retraction of the articles but said it couldn’t comment further. Dr. Obokata currently works at Riken and Dr. Wakayama formerly worked there. Riken said it couldn’t make Dr. Obokata available for comment, and Dr. Obokata didn’t respond to an email inquiry Monday.

    The original results drew international attention and were hailed as offering a safer, easier and more ethical way to create stem cells. But shortly after publication, allegations were raised of possible irregularities in images used in the studies.

    Some commenters have also observed that a passage in which Dr. Obokata and colleagues described some of their research methods was nearly identical to a passage in a separate study published in 2005 by researchers at a university in Germany.

    Riken said the investigation over the allegations was continuing and declined to comment further.

    In hopes of dispelling skepticism, Riken last week released new tips on methods its scientists used to create stem cells.

    But Dr. Wakayama, speaking to The Wall Street Journal earlier Monday, said he had so far been unable to reproduce the results in his lab. Other scientists have also said they were struggling to replicate the new approach.

    “We wrote the papers because we thought it could be easily reproduced,” Dr. Wakayama said. “But there is no value in it if the technique cannot be replicated.”

    Riken has said the scientists involved in the study were preparing to release a full report with step-by-step instructions.

    Write to Alexander Martin at

    1. I am sorry to hear that Wakayama still recognize that all sorts of things here are mistakes. There are mal intended falsifications.

  7. Sounds worrying.

    “I’m no longer sure that the articles are correct,” Wakayama, 46, said at the press conference held at the university on Monday night.

    “Wakayama said images that show pluripotency of STAP cells look almost identical to those used in Obokata’s doctoral thesis about pluripotent stem cells that exist in human body. He also said there are many fundamental errors regarding STAP cells.”

    1. I was so surprised to know the following.
      In the TV interview, Dr. Wakayama said that he was shocked to know that all eight STAP stem cell clones are negative for Tcrb rearrangements according to the new protocol.
      He was shocked because he has been told that two are positive.
      I watched this TV interview only once, so please confirm this information through independent sources.

  8. In contrast to Dr. Wakayama, an unnamed official spokesperson for Riken said (my translation) that they still thought the basic correctness of their STAP cell results was unshaken, but that they were not allowed to comment because the matter was under investigation, which sure sounds like a comment to me.

    If they don’t withdraw now, Riken as a whole will have bet their whole credibility on the Obokata et al papers.


    Prof Knoepfler’s comment makes sense to me. Retraction of the papers would not be “the wisest” choice. Retraction is in effect a death sentence to “STAP.” I, as a physician, still want to believe something real is left in the STAP reseach that should not be thrown away for the sake of many poor patients snatching at straws. But, it may be too late… Look, Japanese people will soon change sides and deport OBOKATA from science arenas for good.

  10. If they do decide to retract I think it will actually take a while to filter through and it could be many months (As you point out, precedent shows this). This could be for several reasons:

    1) A retraction would likely not be unanimous (all authors have to choose whether or not to sign the retraction notice) given the number of groups involved. The result of this would be that lawyers would probably have to be involved at both ends (Nature and RIKEN) to check the response is legitimate.
    2) With some papers the authors hold out for a mega correction rather than a retraction, replacing the questionable figures with a new set of data (It has been observed to happen as seen on the RetractionWatch site, but in cases with far less media exposure). It is a questionable behaviour but some scientists do it.
    3) It depends whether the investigation into the paper problems broadens into a disciplinary matter. If it is a disciplinary matter then there would have to be a disciplinary hearing and a paper would not be retracted before the end of the hearing due to the fear of prejudicing it.

  11. Nature’s guidelines discuss this issue:

    They say: “Retraction. Notification of invalid results. All coauthors must sign a retraction specifying the error and stating briefly how the conclusions are affected, and submit it for publication. In cases where coauthors disagree, the editors will seek advice from independent peer-reviewers and impose the type of amendment that seems most appropriate, noting the dissenting author(s) in the text of the published version.”

    They don’t seem to have many any provision in their published policies for cases where all of the authors refuse a pointed suggestion for a retraction, but I suppose they can handle this by editorial fiat.

    Speaking of retractions, what I’d really like to see is for Riken to retract their press release.

    The longer Riken waits to retract the press release the more they are coupling their fate to the fate of the Obokata et al paper.

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