Nature Rejects Paper Reporting that STAP Does Not Work

STAP stem cells from RIKEN, Harvard
STAP spheres nice and green? Purported STAP stem cells.

Dr. Ken Lee’s lab has done some very important validation attempts on STAP cells and has posted them on ResearchGate. To my knowledge, his lab’s STAP experiments are the ones in the public domain that most closely matched the methods of the Nature STAP papers.

Dr. Lee submitted the work to Nature Brief Communications Arising on STAP cells, but sadly the manuscript was rejected by Nature.

Dr. Lee sent me a copy of the rejection letter from Nature and gave me permission to post it here (see below).

You can read it and decide for yourself, but my impression is that Nature did not give a logical, clear explanation for the rejection.

Dr. Lee’s work appears like exactly what Nature should be publishing in its Brief Communications Arising and contrary to the editor’s comment, Dr. Lee’s work does seem to directly challenge key data and conclusions of Obokata, et al.

So what’s the deal with Nature? 

Are you penalizing Dr. Lee for posting the results first to ResearchGate? Are you trying to avoid publishing something that contradicts work already published in Nature? Are the results too preliminary? If the last one, shouldn’t Nature Brief Communications Arising be an ideal place for preliminary data?

Dear Professor Lee

Thank you for submitting your comment on one of our published papers to the Brief Communications Arising section. Regretfully, we cannot offer to publish it.

This section of Nature is extremely oversubscribed, so we can consider only a very few of the critical comments we receive. Our main criterion for consideration is the degree to which the comment challenges the main conclusions of the published paper in question.

In the present case, while we appreciate the interest of your comments to the community, we do not feel that at this stage they challenge key data or conclusions of the paper by Obokata et al., and therefore we cannot offer to consider your paper for publication in our Brief Communications Arising section.

Although we cannot offer to publish the submission as a Brief Communication Arising, you may wish to use our online commenting facility (see
To post a comment, scroll to the bottom of the online html version of the article you want to comment on. When using the online commenting facility for the first time, you will need to agree to the terms and conditions before a comment can be posted. Using this option would retain the linkage of your comment to the original paper, and would allow for further discussion by the community on the points you have raised.

I am sorry we cannot be more positive on this occasion.

Yours sincerely

(name removed)

Senior Editor

19 thoughts on “Nature Rejects Paper Reporting that STAP Does Not Work”

  1. Well, to me, this NHK news report nails it.

    Either the STAP stem cells were (XXXX edit) just ordinary ES cells or the unique pH 5.6 (+cell culture to make 5.7) STAP protocol converts 129 strain to B6 or F1. This is alchemy.

    The authors are probably approaching the issue as a patent application, which does not require the actual creation but feasibility of some concept. Someone might actually create a reprogrammed cell by accident and they could then collect their patent royalties… without ever creating one for themselves.

    Alchemy or patent application, either way this is not science.

    1. the plan was to sell the patent to investors with the hype of the Nature paper.

      the patent is no good without the Nature publication because i’m quite sure the authors/investors are aware that it won’t work.

      that’s why you talk up the contribution and say “it may be a year before it works”, and start taking money in the meantime.

      1. I think this is sound if the “stress” is not well-defined in their patent. Therefore, the owner(s) of the patent can claim credit for any manipulations to convert adult cells into stem cells, if they redefine those manipulations as stresses to cells. Is this scenario possible?

  2. “This section of Nature is extremely oversubscribed, so we can consider only a very few of the critical comments we receive. ”
    Although this would be the template, this emphasized the status of the journal. Scientists can be consumed and used by publishers but they cannot beat any journals easily!? The question is that how long the review process for Dr.Lee’s MS take and how many reviewers were selected? If there was no reviewers’ comments in the decision letter, it was the direct rejection from EiC?

    1. My understanding is that Nature (and similar journals) use automated predictors of impact as the first stage cutoff. So it’s possible it got a low score and got a form-letter rejection unseen by anyone in a senior position at the journal, and that the person rejecting it didn’t realize the negative effect this would have for Nature Publishing Group.

      If, hypothetically, they were trying to minimize embarrassment they could have sat on it until the Obokata et al. paper was retracted and then returned it as being moot.

  3. I am not sure why the name of the Nature editor who wrote the rejection note has been censored. In the interests of transparency, it should be included. He/she works in a public space as does Nature, and there is no right of privacy involved here. Paul, I hope you can publish the name soon. Thanks.

    1. Dr. Lee published the full letter in the comments on ResearchGate (follow the link in the article). He is now trying to reproduce the Vacanti protocol, updates the results on RG in real time.


  4. As a layman and an outsider, is it really normal to have papers published on things that DON’T work? Seems pretty pointless to me.

      1. I’d not heard about Nature’s “Brief Communications Arising”, so I looked up some examples and see that it is often used to point out discrepancies with a publication or to suggest a different interpretation. It looks to me like Ken Lee’s submission meets these criteria, especially in his description of the autofluorescence that he sees in the treated cells- a phenomenon that must have occurred but was not mentioned (I think) in the original papers. Interestingly, BCA is also a mechanism for authors to explain why they want to retract a paper (see below).
        Here’s a excerpt from the Nature website:
        “General information: Critical comments on recent Nature papers may, after peer review, be published online as Brief Communications Arising, usually alongside a reply from the criticized Nature authors. If the submission only serves to identify an important error in the published paper, it is published in the form of a clarification statement (corrigendum or retraction, for example) by the Nature authors…Brief Communications Arising are exceptionally interesting or important scientific comments and clarifications on original research papers or other peer-reviewed material published in Nature…
        Submissions should challenge the main conclusions of the Nature paper and contain new, unpublished data to support the arguments.
        Submissions that pertain to a non-central part of the Nature paper are not considered. Authors of such contributions are instead invited to make their comment online underneath the full-text version of the paper at Nature’s website. Nature encourages these authors also to contact the authors of the paper directly so that they can respond online.
        Both Brief Communications Arising and corrections by Nature authors are linked bidirectionally with the original published paper…”

  5. Dear Dr. Knoepfler

    I really appreciate your effort to inform about the STAP situation on this blog and I would like to thank you for that.
    And I am also as far as possible from being in a position where I want to defend Nature, which I think is maybe the main responsible of this mess and definitely comes out really bad from the whole story.

    But this is conspiracy theory, and it is neither acceptable nor useful when talking about science.

    1. There are legitimate, reasonable questions about a journal’s decision-making process as to what to publish, particularly if the manuscript in question contradicts an earlier controversial publication by the same journal.

  6. As an outsider, I’m very impressed with the efforts made, thus far, by your community in order to address the STAP issues and to reproduce the results of the STAP papers. Perhaps there should be a special issue (somewhere) devoted to all those efforts. Obviously, it won’t be Nature.

    Nature is one of those journals that tries to be both scientific and journalistic. Contradictory behaviour is to be expected. I regularly choke on some of the ideology that they push in their editorials etc. But I can’t take them too seriously, life is too short for that.

  7. I don’t know, I can *sort of* see the logic here. As far as I can tell, the data submitted do not *rule out* the possibility that STAP cells could exist. That seems to be what Nature want. In this case, this seems to be what Nature are asking for. I don’t know if this is the level they usually ask for in these brief reports.

    The problem we have at the moment, is that the evidence we have that they *do* exist is, if the theories of fraud are to prove true, weak and contradictory.This is a subtly different point.

  8. Hey Dr. Knoepfler,

    It would be great if you could post the manuscript on your website, for those of us who don’t have or don’t want an account with ResearchGate. Thanks!

    1. I agree. I’d like to see that manuscript (I don’t know if I’d exactly *understand* it too well, but I’d love to at least get the chance to read it.) What is it with Nature lately?? The STAP cell debacle isn’t the first of their articles I’ve had issues with this year. Their January article trashing ACT had some serious problems, IMHO. Yes, they may well have had some decent points when it comes to ACT’s difficulties on the business end. But the claims about the progress of similar AMD trials by ACT’s competitors were simply wrong, the kind of basic mistakes about facts and dates that a sixth grader should have known better than to make. And isn’t Nature supposed to be a scientific journal? Isn’t it bizarre that the only part of that article which could make any claim to accuracy dealt with the business end of what that company is doing? We can all find plenty of financial information elsewhere in order to make up our own minds on that end. That is not what a peer-reviewed journal should be doing.

      I think it’s about time that Nature made a full disclosure of exactly which kind of business interests they may be involved with in some indirect way. Not that I expect this to happen, but in a perfect world, that’s what we would be seeing. Who has a financial stake of some kind in the outcome of the research they publish? When we see an article attacking a company (and I do not mean a criticism of the scientific work of that company, because that’s not what it was), then aren’t we entitled to know if the author has a competing financial interest? Those kinds of declarations are certainly made on this blog.

      It’s not that the conflicts of interest for Nature would be straightforward, if they did exist. But in my opinion, if there really is something going on here, then we would all have the right to know what it is.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: