Social Media Helps Field Deal With Stressful STAP Stem Cell Situation

harry potterI believe that social media has on the whole had a strongly positive impact on the STAP cell situation that the stem cell field has been grappling with for 5 weeks.

If the STAP method is proven to be correct at some later date, which is possible, it’s almost certain that those replication efforts will have been aided and speeded along significantly because of social media.

Update and hat tip to commenter Bob: Social media also has facilitated international communication about STAP including Japan, the US, and countries all around the world that simply wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

My stem cell research colleague Dr. George Daley was quoted less enthusiastically about this topic today in The Boston Globe:

“I am concerned about the rush to use blogging and social media to report early experience with a complex biological experiment. Most scientific experiments take time and many replications to work confidently, and early reporting may reflect a negative bias.”

It sure sounds like he is at least in part referring to our STAP stem cell crowdsourcing efforts here.

Dr. Daley is certainly right that there are risks and downsides to taking a social media approach to something as complicated as STAP. I also believe he is right that social media-based early reporting of STAP efforts has a risk of negative bias. It makes sense that anyone getting a positive result might be more inclined to save it for later publication.

However, it seems we disagree on the overall merit of stem cell social media here. I believe that there are also some great potential positives to social media in these kinds of situations and there absolutely are serious risks to the alternative–silence–as well.

To me, the idea of blogging about the rapidly evolving STAP situation seemed logical from the get-go and I hoped that it could make a positive impact through providing information and a forum for dialogue.

Despite some complexities to the blogging and to associated comments from the community, on the whole blogging has fulfilled its mission of educating people and aiding them to stay informed about the complicated, rapidly changing STAP situation in ways that traditional journals could not hope to achieve. Journals are far too slow and frankly just too politically correct.

Crowdsourcing people’s initial attempts at STAP also seemed like a logical idea to again provide for rapid education and dialogue. Even though our crowdsourcing page has reports that varied a great deal in depth and specific methods, I believe on the whole this effort has provided valuable information for people and it connected people together who were trying STAP so that they could provide each other feedback and tips.

Again, this kind of thing could never be achieved by a traditional journal.

Ironically enough, our crowdsourcing page had almost 10 largely negative reports on STAP-related methods posted well before a Nature News piece came out on STAP saying that a survey of bigwig stem cell labs around the world had found 10/10 negative responses as to success with STAP attempts. If our page had negative bias, then it was no more so than did Nature‘s own survey of top stem cell labs around the world, right?

PubPeer also played a key role via post-publication review of the STAP papers.

Now if you step back for a moment and ask yourself hypothetically what the STAP stem cell situation would be like today about 5 weeks after the Nature papers came out in the absence of all of this social media mentioned above, I think the situation would be far worse.

Say Harry Potter had waved his magic wand on STAP Cell day 0 and cast a spell to remove all social media from the STAP situation, what would have happened?

We’ll never know for sure, but I suspect that in that hypothetical social media-less reality there would be no Nature or RIKEN investigations going on to help clarify certain elements of the STAP situation. I’m convinced there would also have been no detailed STAP protocol put out there in the public domain as we saw pop up yesterday. The two STAP Nature papers would also almost certainly still be behind paywalls instead of openly available via my request to Nature to make them that way.

Yet at the same time dozens of labs would still be trying STAP-related experiments relatively in the dark and unconnected to each other, wasting time, reagents, and other resources.

For a long time, in that hypothetical scenario, only Nature, RIKEN, and the STAP authors themselves would have entirely controlled the flow of information about STAP cells. With all due respect I don’t think that would have benefitted the stem cell field.

Again, social media has its downsides and there are risks, especially with anonymous Internet users, including some who might be prone to launching personal attacks.

However, on the whole social media has had and will continue to have a positive impact on the STAP stem cell situation. In the future other similar rapidly developing high profile science stories will almost certainly be illuminated by social media as well.

Note: the original title of this blog post included the word “difficult”, which I changed to “stressful” just for the heck of it.


  1. Even now, one suspects that Riken and Nature have no great enthusiasm for investigating this matter (It’s really absurd that Japan has no third-party independent agency for making such investigations) but at the end of the day they either have to address all of the points of doubt raised on social media or else be adjudged to have committed a cover-up, This would, as you say in the main post, have been completely different in the old days.

    Another point is that the social media have facilitated interaction between people in Japan who mostly post in the Japanese language and people overseas.

    Let’s see what happens from now on.

  2. I like the idea of crowd sourcing and sharing data on controversial findings. This way if it is just complex then a pattern for successful replication will emerge for all to benefit from. If there is something that makes the finding happen infrequently with enough replication this would show too. If it is not replicable then either the methods or the data is not up to standard. To be useful for commercial or health purposes consistent use of what works is important.

    Having survived social media attacks I am still in favor of crowd sourcing and social media because I have witnessed and endured personal attacks based on false assumptions. A lot of nastiness could be avoided by just putting replicable methods out there and separating fact from fiction.

    Essentially they are being sold the equivalent of Race for the Cure and they are investing with their lives. I think it is a delusion to expect that after they run a few races they will care what an expert with no solutions thinks,

    Do stem cell vitamins work… let’s stop arguing, citing theoretical frameworks in big words, whining about COI and put the methods out there for others to test.

    There is a lot of telling the public and patients what doesn’t work or what does but no showing them the truth by testing the controversy. Those in the field have everyday results to refer to and balance between hope and hype. Here the results could be videoed so they see what you see. We all learn more about cells ,how answers are searched for and what this looks like going in a paper. I think this is a great trend.

  3. Paul, Amy, Robert,
    I think this was a successful experiment – a lab meeting without borders. Imagine that a STAP researcher was reporting her results at a lab meeting – you and the hundreds of others in your worldwide lab would be obligated to give critical feedback. The authors shouldn’t feel any more personally attacked than they would if their colleagues in the meeting were criticizing their work. This should be familiar to everyone who works in a lab.

    • precisely,

      any good scientist (budding or mature) will understand the USEFULNESS of criticism (in any form), and hopefully will invest any generated-energy into their work to improve.

      any author who publishes in nature should expect their email inbox to be flooded and their doors to be kicked down if there isn’t a consensus on the reproducibility prior to publication.

  4. A newspaper story in Japanese yesterday said that Dr. Obokata had succeeded in reproducing her own results. This story quotes an anonymous Riken spokesperson as saying that while third party replication was still required the replication by Dr. Obokata herself was a significant step towards the validation of the results in the Nature paper.

    This strikes me as problematical for two reasons.
    (1) If Riken makes positive announcements like this while their internal investigation is ongoing it tends to cast doubts on the seriousness of their investigation. Perhaps they would be better advised to refrain from any comments until they have announced the results of their investigation.
    (2) In a case like this it would be significant if an investigator with a high international reputation independently confirmed the results of the Obokata et al. paper, but the significance of a statement by the author herself is not necessarily high in this kind of a case.

  5. On Jan. 29 of this year the Boston Globe said:
    A team of Boston and Japanese researchers stunned the scientific world Wednesday by revealing a remarkably simple and unexpected way to create stem cells that can become any of the diverse cell types in the body.
    “It’s just a wonderful result; it’s almost like alchemy,” Douglas Melton, who is codirector of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and was not involved in the research, said of the two mouse studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature. “It says one has found a way to reveal the hidden potential of cells with a relatively straightforward method.”

    Not surprisingly, this is the same kind of hype as we had at that time in the Japanese media. When we talk about the airing this paper has received in social media, we should reflect on the fact that the commercial news media have simply repackaged the hype fed to them by Harvard and Riken, and failed completely to do any independent reporting until quite late in the game. They probably would still not be reporting any of the doubts had it not been for social media breaking the story.

  6. One of my problem with Nature coverage that I didn’t mention before is unwillingness to share detail of their STAP survey. I understand that results are 10/10 negative, but it will be very scientific to post a method: who was surveyed (name of PI, lab, institution), via phone or email, how many attempts were performed, with what type of cells and so on. It how should be done, instead of saying in one sentence: “we did a survey, 10/10 negative….”. The answer why it’s negative could be in details. This is a science. After all that Nature claimed to be “the best of scientific journalism”? It’s the same “old academic school” – rigid and dogmatic.

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