STAP coverage ruffles some ‘elite’ stem cell feathers

Will a few of the “elite” of the research world be on the wrong side of history when it comes to STAP cells?

Haruko Obokata
Obokata presenting STAP in happier time.

It seems some don’t want people talking about just how bad the STAP situation might be. Bad news may travel fast as the expression goes, but the people who talk about it may put themselves at risk from the royalty.

Apparently this has been going on for thousands of years.

No one loves the messenger who brings bad news” — Antigone, Sophocles, 442 BC

Wikipedia even has an entire page (from which I took the above quote from the tragedy Antigone) dedicated to this “shoot the messenger” concept and has the passage quoted below that seems particularly applicable today to the stem cell field dealing with the STAP stem cell issue.

Plutarch‘s Lives has this line: “The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus‘s coming was so far from pleasing Tigranes that he had his head cut off for his pains; and no man daring to bring further information, without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him…”‘

It seems this concept of not talking about bad news is well-entrenched in the stem cell field too. I’ve been informed that I’ve ruffled the feathers of a couple elite VIPs of the stem cell world by covering the STAP stem cell story on my blog and doing the stem cell crowdsourcing experiment.

Would they really prefer that we all just skip along merrily singing kumbaya?

The reality is that the STAP stem cell situation is a serious threat to the stem cell field. As someone who is a big fan of stem cells and advocates actively for stem cell research, I wasn’t going to turn a blind eye.

On the positive side, many top stem cell scholars have told me directly that they are very supportive of my stem cell advocacy efforts and blogging on this current situation. More broadly and generally stem cell researchers and others who have provided feedback on the STAP coverage on this blog have been positive. That’s not to say I haven’t gotten some hate. I have.

I believe that the STAP cell situation is a tragedy and frankly blogging about it has been entirely unpleasant for me….kind of like a 6-week long root canal at the dentist.

The collective wisdom of the stem cell field today (again with only minor exceptions) is that STAP is a situation that must be dealt with openly as much as that is painful.

What’s at stake? The reputation of the whole stem cell field and its credibility with the public.

Update: It’s important to point out here that I don’t think this STAP situation, even if it gets even worse, can derail the positive momentum of our field overall, but it can slow things down. Also, the stem cell field needs public trust. When I am out there communicating with the public about stem cells and answering their questions, sadly they often spontaneously mention “scandals” and “controversy”. Many folks seem to associate these with the stem cell field already.

21 thoughts on “STAP coverage ruffles some ‘elite’ stem cell feathers”

  1. In swinging open the doors of peer review to countless reviewers–versus a couple–Dr. Knoepfler and other thoughtful scientists are letting exponentially more noise into the hallowed halls of science–and exponentially more light. No one who loves science doesn’t see the importance of this.

  2. Natalie, Paul:
    I think we’ve gotten a glimpse of the future. I’m not so worried about the attacks on reviewers, editors, and journals- who among us scientists has not ranted about the unfairness of a review, the lack of credentials of the reviewers (this is a euphemism…), or the motivation of the journal’s owners? It’s just that social media have enabled a far broader audience for our complaints. I don’t find that harmful- it may even be a good way to anonymously blow off steam. This is inevitable, and we need to find the positives in this new openness. Any ideas?

  3. Paul, I stand corrected about thesis figures. RIKEN in a statement, however, stated that their concern was publication of thesis figures. They should have made it clearer that the problem was mis-representing data (i.e. the same figure was used to represent two different experiments- that’s a very different issue). I also agree that this type of imbroglio (and this is not the first of its kind for the stem cell field) detracts from the good-quality science. There are very real issues of lack of reproducibility in biomedical science and I would urge us all to address the broader problem as a community and try to come up with some meaningful solutions. Pointing fingers at editors and reviewers, which was done in a recent post, doesn’t get at the more disturbing questions of what hear looks like lack of grad student/post-doc supervision, how much co-authors and PIs really contribute to supervising their staff, the experiments conducted in their and vetting data, and so on. Also undue pressures to publish in “CNS” (Cell, Nature Science) which even garners cash awards in some countries. I worked in Korea for a while and can tell you the pressure by funding agencies was unreasonable and intense.

  4. This discussion occupies a knife edge– a witch hunt on one side of the blade, and vetting of published, peer-reviewed literature on the other.This paper is under more scrutiny than any other I have witnessed. The technique seemed to be promising, if robust, and if not, as maybe it is not, we as a field are not set back so much. The reputation of the stem cell field does not pivot on these two papers. The concerns that it is only mouse cells of a certain stage– when reporting something entirely novel, it’s ok if it’s in a limited scope. That’s what is being reported. How it’s construed is the responsibility of those who communicate the results. With regards to publishing figures from a thesis in a paper, that is standard practice. I was expected to publish my thesis work in journals. I don’t imagine that has changed. Other signs of scientific misconduct, they are disturbing. The integrity of the stem cell field does not rest on these papers.

    1. Natalie,
      I think you make some good points, but I do think these papers themselves and particularly if the public perceives a whitewash of problems, could decrease public trust in the stem cell field, especially given the historical context. Part of the problem is how the papers themselves, even Nature itself, and RIKEN proclaimed them in such intense terms and portrayed the method as a piece of cake to do. Then the mainstream media continued the hype all around the world. That set things up for intense scrutiny to follow. It became inevitable that people were going to take a “magnifying glass” to these papers.
      The thesis issue is a concern primarily because the data in the re-used image is apparently described as an entirely different experiment in the 2011 thesis (not STAP cells) from the the way it is described in the 2014 Nature paper (STAP cells). Also that is just one of many problems.

  5. Dear Paul:
    My feathers remain unruffled. There have been a few steps back in this field, but many more steps forward. Imagine if Shinya Yamanaka’s paper on reprogramming were published now- the techniques weren’t claimed to be easy, and it would have taken longer- but a crowdsourcing page would have reported: “it works!” The good papers stand up to scrutiny and scrutiny is essential for scientific progress. If it hadn’t been published in Nature and claimed simplicity as the major advantage, the STAP papers’ would have not caused negative publicity for our field- they would have produced no publicity at all, no step forward, no step back. Because of the hopes people have pinned on stem cells for medical research, those who fund our research hold us to the highest standards. We have an obligation not to disappoint them.

  6. Brian Sanderson

    “Truth will ultimately prevail where there is pains taken to bring it to light.”
    George Washington

    Paul, you are on the right side of history.

    I don’t think that the stem cell field will suffer if STAP cell stuff ultimately turns out to be wrong. Reading between the lines (as an outsider to your discipline), I think I detect a familiar pattern that one sees in many other fields. The work involves many specialists, few (none?) of whom actually are on top of every aspect of the project. Thus, (almost?) everyone — authors, reviewers and publisher — has gone to print on an assumption of trust (dare I say faith?). Poop happens. No real damage is done so long as “there is pains taken to” examine the poop…

    1. Thanks, Brian.
      I agree with you, but I think the key to the stem cell field moving on from this is avoiding a whitewash of it. Overall the stem cell field is vey strong and on the road to doing amazing positive things. This won’t stop it but we need the public’s trust to do all the good that is possible via stem cells.

  7. If I can make a comment, I’m very appreciative of your efforts to document the scientific problems with STAP.

    But it has seemed to be mean-spirited and a bit personal at times. You have equated STAP and the criticism around it to a soap opera, a weed, and an 8 year old…in the last three weeks. You have also mentioned on multiple occasions that you’ve considered stopping and allowing things to proceed through the established channels (i.e. Nature’s editorial staff, Riken investigation), but have decided to just keep waving your own pitchfork at them.

    You published an interview with Dr Wakayama where you concluded you would support his position to give STAP a year for replication, then literally the next day wrote an entry calling the paper dead.

    And this isn’t you, but several commenters have started to note that this is indicative of bigger problems in Japanese science or Japanese culture, including blaming Riken as a whole.

    1. AJ,
      Thanks for the feedback. It’s a complicated situation that changes daily so it’s tough to blog about it in general and also in a linear kind of manner. The story is all over the place. Even Dr. Wakayama, who in my interview said to give it a year, then just days later himself did a complete about face and called for the papers to be retracted.

  8. Who were the reviewers of these articles?

    Whomever they are, they should be barred from reviewing and more papers.

    Ultimately, the reviewers are to blame.

  9. Given that only “a couple” of people are annoyed while “many” are supportive, why devote a post to the doomed messenger-shooting minority? You should not take pride in the small-mindedness of your opponents; you should take pride in the excellence of your coverage.

    1. Thanks, Neuroskeptic. Perhaps you are right. But I decided to do a post on this because some powerful people were/are cranky and I wanted to let people know that part of the story that was going on behind the scenes. I think it provides important context for how the STAP situation is being handled overall.

  10. Why not take the risk?

    There is something I don’t get in this story. As far as I can tell, there are no major mistakes in the two papers questioning the results. A few errors yes, but not enough to say that they were made on purpose to lead to a false conclusion. And the publication process was very long, four to five years. Saying that publication was rushed is ridiculous.

    For me the situation was the same with the Mitalipov cloning paper with worrying but still minor errors. Except that this time it was indeed rushed to publication by Cell in less days than the years taken by Nature to accept the STAP papers…

    In the end it is a (very) worrying question of faith in the results. As if science was about faith – and it is a catholic researcher writing 🙂 No one ever doubted that Mitalipov would be able to perform human cloning but no one is ready to believe that reprograming is that easy…

    Finally I cannot stand the witch hunt started by anonymous people using computers to screen all the important papers looking for minor mistakes (for God’s sake, some of them called duplication the use of pictures published in Obokata’s thesis and in the Nature papers – what’s wrong with that? they have exactly the same legend!) rather than trying to actually understand the science and see whether it makes sense. And I bet they are unable to publish good articles so they prefer to spend their time trying to kill the work of others. Don’t take me wrong: of course I’m against data fabrication and even genuine mistakes should be corrected – see for instance the extraordinary steps taken by the St Johnston group to correct a bad situation. But these anonymous people focus on technical rather than scientific issues which I find quite strange. They make me think of armchair footballers drinking beer in front of the telly and screaming at players on the field: they might be right but let see what they can produce…

    Anyway, so far, apart from the fact that nobody “believes” in STAP cells anymore, to my mind there is no strong reason to retract the papers. Why not publish corrected versions like in the Mitalipov’s case? And let them publish the full protocol, wait for a couple of years, and see what happens… It will not do any bad to science because most people have already given up trying – and if someone somewhere can reproduce the result and make the protocol better and easier, these two papers might become some of the most extraordinary biology papers ever published. I think we should take the risk…

    1. “Finally I cannot stand the witch hunt started by anonymous people using computers” – Why not take the risk?

      Says the anonymous individual using his computer.

      Anonymity is your right, of course, but maybe you should stop leaving special-pleading comments, and join the growing number of people finding major flaws (not ‘minor mistakes’, Dr Pangloss’) in dodgy science.

    2. One clarification:

      > they have exactly the same legend!

      No. The legends are different, because she did different experiments, yet the figure is the same. Her dissertation is NOT about STAP cells. (The title is “Isolation of pluripotent adult stem cells discovered from tissues derived from all three germ layers”. You can read the abstract in Japanese here: I bet anyone who has experience in biological experiments doesn’t regard this as an honest mistake. This (in addition to Riken’s amendment that says there was no TCR rearrangement in all the eight clones of STAP stem cells) is how Teru Wakayama lost all his confidence in his co-authored papers.

  11. I think the reason senior PIs do not enjoy talking about problems with data is that they worry that the same could easily happen to them as well. When you think about it, if you are senior PI there is quite a high inherent probability during a long research career that you get at least one of your students/postdocs fabricating their experimental data (according to a survey: 2% of scientists will admit to falsifying data whereas 14% have spotted their colleagues falsifying data: ). If this fabrication gets detected and publicised then the damage cannot be controlled (people start looking to see how deep the rot goes)., This loss of control is pretty painful if you are used to being in control at the top of your field.

  12. I don’t understand — this is a paper by one particular group. Even if it turns out that actual fraud occurred, why would it be such a body blow to the stem cell field?

  13. Cover ups and muted silence do everyone a disservice. The fact is that people are having a very hard time reproducing the data. The stem cell field has benefitted from phenomenal publicity and support but has also attracted doubt and hype.

    The danger here lies in public confidence. There’s some amazing advances in regenerative medicine and the threat is not from mistakes (whether intentional or innocent) but from any perception that the research community is trying to hide something. The vast majority wants to get to the bottom of this, no matter the outcome. That’s simply good science.

    1. dr knoepfler,

      i think you have provided a medium for a much-needed expression of dissatisfaction (an understatement by any measure, imo).

      hopefully this will allow us to chart a course to reduce the abuse of science over the past 15-20 years (especially). even further, let’s hope we can reverse some of the damage caused by “publish or perish” and the specious publication-evaluation criteria for Nature publications.

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