Google Shows Us Crazy STAP Cell Dichotomy

Sometimes when we Google things we can find out surprising things about specific topics including the whole STAP cell train wreck.

When I recently searched for STAP, here was my reaction:

What the heck?

Google search shows STAP cell dichotomy.
Google search shows STAP cell dichotomy.

A recent Google search for STAP cells yielded these two adjacent, completely contradictory results sourced from two Obokata mentors (see image above) by the same newspaper less than 1 day apart.

That certainly clears things up on the STAP cell front, huh?

Are they a hypothesis or “undoubtedly exist”? Neither, in my view. They are dubious at this point.

16 thoughts on “Google Shows Us Crazy STAP Cell Dichotomy”

    1. The issues raised regarding Yamanaka’s papers may be found here.

      The blog post is in Japanese but the issues raised should be clear from the figures. (1) Apparent reuse of the same photo. (2) Error bars all the same in one figure.

      This blog post was made on May 1, 2013. I don’t understand why this has suddenly become a big issue almost a year later.

      1. Some of us following this are laypeople in cell biology as well as in Japanese so explanations are helpful. The “tada” demonstrations are not always clear for me.

        I guess the two chromosomes or whatever (black thingies) are not supposed to be identical? But then why does Y say “there was no cut and paste”?

        Also, not clear what the issue is with error bars.

  1. Dr. Ishii of Riken has announced his intention to resign as the chair of the committee investigating the Obokata et al. paper, due to issues arising from manipulated images in several of his (much) earlier papers. Here is a news story
    and here is Dr. Ishii’s announcement (all in Japanese, sorry, but should be clear from the figs).

    Dr. Ishii says the journal has accepted a correction for publication.

    The papers under discussion are Oncogene. 2008 Feb 14;27(8):1045-54. and J Biol Chem. 2004 Oct 22;279(43):44582-9.

    1. Hi Robert,

      Could you please explain a bit more on this? Is this entirely a different issue?

      And am I seeing potentially misconduct in papers published by Ishii et. al.?


  2. As an outsider it strikes me that the issues are not dishonesty, but a lack of co-ordination between distant co-authors. Sometimes the presence of a naysayer is required i.e. someone who is sufficiently critical to double check a process before it sees the light of day. Such a person’s input needs to be valued, and not characterised as a purely negative influence. Which is probably easier said than done.

  3. Maybe another precedent will give us some insight into this case?

    In 2004, a series of scientific misconducts by a researcher in Riken were exposed in three journals. You can see one in Genes and Development here:

    Riken’s action was to suggest retraction to the authors, just like Obokata’s case. Later, Riken fired the first author, who committed those misconducts, as well as the last and corresponding author, who was not directly involved and thus was not aware of the misconducts at the time of publication.

    As for Obokata’s case, I feel that manipulation of a gel image will not amount to retraction: many people got away with it by submitting a corrigendum or erratum. On the other hand, an erroneous teratoma image is more troublesome and grave. Unless, the result is reproduced in a timely manner, whose chance looks very remote to me, the paper will be subject to retraction, I feel.

    We can kind of predict what will happen to Obokata. The big question is other authors, especially Sasai. As far as I understand, the only experiment conducted in his lab was live-cell imaging, which he said he can back up 100%. The two alleged misconducts were not done in his lab and he is not even a corresponding (or last) author of the problematic Article paper. These circumstances (plus his big name) will favor him, I believe.

  4. This article might be a good juxtaposition to the whole STAP/Obokata posturing debacle. It demonstrates, for me, personal integrity, owning up to the mistakes and ability to acknowledge them. Since from the start of the STAP accident, a Japanese friend of mine has stated that the trouble comes from the internal education in her lab, and I believe he might have a case about it.

  5. While I agree that the STAP story is fading in the minds of the general public, it is still simmering in the Japanese scientific community.

    I believe the dichotomy reflects the two narratives that are competing for acceptance within the collective consciousness of the scientific community. In one narrative, there is a STAP phenomenon, but the authors took a shortcut to publication, which can be attributed to poor supervision, lack of training and ignorance. In another narrative, the whole thing is a lie. In all my conversations with Japanese scientists, the key question is the level of dishonesty, which, unfortunately, can only be resolved by further scrutiny. Many would say that the details of who knew what etc., are irrelevant to whether or not the papers should be retracted, so what’s holding Nature from pulling them? I tend to agree with this sentiment …

  6. It seems to me Sasai is more committed to the existence of STAP than this google search result indicates. His comments are
    1. Stap is a real phenomenon
    2. There are many observations which cannot be explained without assuming existence of stap
    3. Stap is a hypothesis, but plausible one, and this worthy of being tested.

    In e-mail interview with Mainich shinbun news paper on April 2nd, he even states the following surprising comments
    1. Possibly, Institutes outside of Japan are doing research of stap secretly
    2. Possibly, these secret research target on *stap cell of human being.!!!!
    3. Now Riken is planning the test of existence of stap. But this is not enough.
    In parallel, we had better do more advanced research, including human stap cell,
    to compete with them.
    4. Present stagnation of research of stap is “the greatest loss of japan”

  7. Great summary by Robert.

    It’s pretty evident these journals and science administrators don’t respond without a lot of outside pressure and very bad press. They don’t just do the right thing spontaneously. They will end up sweeping it under the rug eventually, that’s how they are. Still kudos for what’s been accomplished. They would be sticking to guns even more without the hounding that was done.

  8. After Dr. Sasai’s press conference the STAP fiasco has now, at least for the moment, been relegated to the media’s back burner. This is mainly due to the “media’s big story of the moment” having changed from STAP to the Korean ship disaster, but partly due to the lack of new developments and the public’s getting tired of the STAP story.

    Dr. Obokata’s press conference of a few days ago was notable for the way she emphasized the last word in “STAP cells EXIST,” which is written ありãūぁす(a ri maa su) in Japanese rather than ありãūす (a ri ma su). If you do a Google search on ありãūぁす you’ll get a bunch of stuff related to STAP.

    Unfortunately no one in Japan is familiar with Sgt. Schultz (the bumbling prisoner of war camp guard in the TV show “Hogan’s Heroes”) whose catch phrase line was “I know nuffink” so I can’t say that Dr. Sasai used the “Sgt Schultz defense” when I’m answering questions from the Japanese news media. But that was the essence of his 3hr+ press conference.

    The key phrase that characterized Dr. Sasai’s press conference was “äļ–į•ŒãŪč‹Ĩåąą” (the world famous Dr. Wakayama”). If you Google that a bunch of stuff related to Dr. Sasai’s presser will pop up. The point being that he insisted his involvement in the project was purely at the writing stage, that he had no chance to check any of the data, and so on. This claim didn’t go over well with the public or pundits, but it may allow him to ride out the storm without permanent damage to his official position.

    So the bottom line is that Riken has thrown Dr. Obokata under the bus (at least for the moment), and that she and her legal team appear to be trying to pull Dr. Wakayama down under the bus to join her, while Dr. Sasai, who also acted to keep her under the bus, is trying to throw Dr. Wakayama under it too.

    Dr. Obokata’s legal team has submitted a bunch of new documents and photos to Riken as part of their objection to Riken’s finding that she (and only she) committed fraud. These haven’t been made public, but they have been reported (due presumably to background information supplied to the media by the legal team) to include copies of “the real photos” for the various problematic figures in Nature. This is in support of the legal team’s “no evil intent, just honest mistake” strategy. Riken is now faced with either hearing and reviewing the new evidence (which could take months) or rejecting the appeal immediately, creating grounds for a claim of bias. Immediate rejection by Riken will help her defense argue in court that the investigation was unfairly biased against her.

    How will this all end up? My prediction is that eventually the paper will be retracted by Nature (possibly at the request of some authors, which may already have been made). but not soon. The various actors on the Riken side will probably succeed in fuzzing up the issue enough so that Dr. Obokata (who is likely to be either fired or asked to resign) will probably eventually reach a relatively favorable out of court settlement. The other actors will get off with a slap on the wrist. Perhaps the president of Riken, Dr. Noyori, will symbolically resign to take responsibility (but then after a short lull will be designated a senior adviser to Riiken), but nothing much will change at Riken, and after a year or so they will probably get their corporate status upgraded from “gold” to “platinum.” Years and lots of money will be wasted on a fruitless effort to “reproduce the STAP phenomenon” but this will eventually peter out…. The hypothetical personal relationships among the various actors will probably continue to be a subject for media speculation for a while, but given that nothing definite has been established yet it’s likely that this too will eventually fade out.

    If the STAP fiasco plays out that way it won’t be good for science in Japan, so I hope I’m wrong but I’m afraid I’m probably right.


      The mainstream newspapers are educating the public about the concepts of the first and corresponding authors, and “gift authorship”.

      Mainichi (Japanese version) in an article entitled “cutting the lizard’s tail” (i.e., “throwing under the bus”) noted that RIKEN failed to immediately confiscate vital evidence like the data PC and logbooks, or adequately protect the identify of the internal whistleblower. It claimed conflicts-of-interest within the members of the internal investigation committee, and that the management has not provided the public with enough information or shown a willingness to take adequate responsibility.

    2. Your prediction will in all probability come true, except for Dr Noyori’s resignation. He could remain in the position shall the other actors but Ms Obokata get off with a slap on the wrist, I reckon. She will return to Boston, and the incident will be lost in the mists of time as soon as she goes there.

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