May 29, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

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.

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