January 18, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

Obokata OKs Retraction of Nature STAP Cell Letter, Not Article

Haruko Obokata
Haruko Obokata, in happier days.

Japanese news media are reporting that Haruko Obokata and other key authors have agreed to retract the Nature STAP cell letter, but not the Nature article.

This is a major development and a peculiar one because to many in the  field it is the Nature STAP cell article that is the more flawed of the two Nature papers on STAP.

Why would Obokata and her colleagues agree to retract the STAP letter from Nature, especially after for so long categorically rejecting the idea?

I suspect they are under pressure from other co-authors, from RIKEN, and probably from Nature. Just yesterday I wrote an editorial calling on Nature to retract both articles and more broadly there have been a lot of calls for Nature to do something about STAP so I imagine the journal may be hoping that the authors will retract the papers so they do not have to do so themselves editorially.

Why would the authors retract the STAP letter but not the article?

It appears, at least from the Japan Times story, that there may be some effort to place blame for STAP on Dr. Teru Wakayama:

“Of the three researchers, her lawyer said University of Yamanashi professor Teruhiko Wakayama is responsible for the paper Obokata has agreed to retract. He was engaged in all experiments, and Obokata wrote the paper under his guidance, lawyer Hideo Miki said.”

This seems unfair to me.

It is also worth nothing that RIKEN is currently determining a punishment for what it called Dr. Obokata’s misconduct and RIKEN asked Obokata to retract the other STAP paper (correction on which STAP paper RIKEN requested be retracted via new Cyranoski Nature News piece on today’s development):

“Ironically, the paper that Obokata has agreed to retract was not the one found by RIKEN to contain  manipulation. Obokata still stands by that paper, which establishes the basic technology for creating STAP cells.”

I’d also imagine that to Obokata and others including her postdoc mentor Dr. Charles Vacanti that the Nature article is far more important to keep unretracted. It is the heart of the STAP cell story. I have emailed them both asking for clarification.

If I was a Nature senior editor (and of course I’m not), I’d figure this is the end of the road for STAP and we should editorially retract the STAP article at this point since the authors will clearly not do so. This is in fact the perfect time for Nature to retract the STAP article what with the authors apparently OK’ing retraction of the other STAP paper. Get both STAP retractions out of the way at once during roughly the same news cycle.

The fact that the STAP letter is now likely to be dead only further supports the idea that the whole STAP story is fundamentally flawed and the STAP article cannot survive much longer either.

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