What next for STAP? Is retraction of the two papers on the near horizon?
It has been two months now since Nature published the two papers on STAP cells and STAP stem cells.
There has been a storm of controversy surrounding these papers and the claims they made to easily produce the most powerful of stem cells with simple stresses such as a exposure to a weak acid bath. To my knowledge no one independent of the STAP groups themselves has gotten this technology to work and even Dr. Teru Wakayama, who is an author on the papers, can no longer get it to work.
Where does STAP go from here?
The biggest specific question now is the following: should the two STAP papers be retracted?
Below I present the cases for and against retraction.
While this could go back and forth like a seesaw (image above from Wikipedia) I think there is a growing case one way as I’ll talk more about toward the end.
What are the possible reasons the STAP papers should not be retracted?
- STAP cells could still be real. Despite all the issues with the papers and the STAP cell team including some of their past publications, the core STAP cell science could still be real. Admittedly, no independent team has reported in the public domain or via surveys that they could get it to work, but perhaps more time is needed, which brings me to the next point.
- STAP needs more time. In the grand scheme of things, two months in science is a relatively short period of time and retraction is a huge step. More time might be needed to get an entirely clear picture of this situation.
- Avoid admitting mistake. Retraction could be seen publicly as an admission of major screws up by the researchers, RIKEN, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and/or Nature. Who wants to admit they made a big mistake?
- Some authors do not want retraction. Typically retraction requires consensus by the authors and some authors–notable Drs. Vacanti and Obokata–are reportedly opposed to retraction. Without a consensus it might be the wrong move to retract.
What are the possible reasons the STAP papers should be retracted?
- The STAP papers are unsalvageable. Simple corrections to the two papers would be too weak to remedy the many issues with them and that approach would hurt Nature‘s reputation. The papers inherently have too many problems that are too serious to be fixable by a correction alone. Taking the correction approach and leaving the papers unretracted would leave Nature with a serious, unhealing black eye. I think the odds are slightly greater than 50-50 that if the authors cannot entirely agree on a retraction, ultimately Nature will probably do an editorial retraction eventually. It could take some time though for them to take such a major action and I would not be surprised if it never happened.
- STAP technology has little chance for major impact anymore. Even if STAP “works” at some point for someone else, it is not likely to be a high impact discovery. Given the efforts put into trying to get it to work by many strong stem cell teams around the world, it is nearly impossible that STAP can be a broadly applicable technology.
- Some authors want retraction. It would seem to be a deeply troubling sign that reportedly some of the STAP authors, most notably Dr. Teru Wakayama (senior author on the STAP Nature letter), want the papers retracted.
- Best for those involved to put this behind them quickly. If RIKEN, some of the researchers involved, Nature, and/or Brigham and Women’s refuse to retract the papers, I predict that the STAP situation will linger as a damaging scandal, potentially for years, harming many of those involved. Better, as the saying goes, to rip the Band-Aid off quickly and get it over with so you can move on and heal.
- Show the world the stem cell field doesn’t tolerate this kind of stuff. STAP can give the biomedical sciences and the stem cell field a black eye. Dealing with it openly and with a just intolerance for this level of transgressions rightly provides an indication that the field overall is robust, has the highest standards, and can be trusted by the public. Anyone can make one or even a few mistakes, but there is a deeply troubling pattern of mistakes and possibly even more seriously concerning conduct with the STAP papers and other publications by some of the same team members.
My own feeling, still changeable and of course just one person’s opinion, is that the argument for retraction is much stronger than the argument against.
What will the various parties involved in STAP do? It’s hard to say. Tomorrow should at least bring some additional information with RIKEN’s “final” report on STAP, but perhaps we should lower our expectations on that PR event providing a whole lot of clarity. If RIKEN goes into a more defensive mode and some authors remain opposed to retraction, the most likely outcome is, as mentioned above, an eventual editorial retraction by Nature. However even that is highly uncertain. Nature may not want a retraction. Its leaders may be holding out a glimmer of hope that some other independent researchers can get STAP to work to take some of the pressure off. However, even in that increasingly unlikely scenario, Nature would be inviting an unending stream of criticism by letting the papers stand even with corrections.