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.

10 thoughts on “Obokata OKs Retraction of Nature STAP Cell Letter, Not Article”

  1. Michael Ashikawa

    Could you explain why you think it is unfair to apportion a reasonable amount of blame to the most experienced and qualified author on a paper after flaws are identified in the research it represents?

    1. Because lead scientists let more junior researchers use their name on papers without direct involvement; the researchers gain credibility on their papers and the lead gets named on research without having to perform the work…. you scratch my back and I will scratch yours; until something goes wrong.

      1. But that isn’t really what was asked: isn’t it reasonable to expect the ones signing off as authors of a paper to share responsibility of the contents? Rubber stamping ones name on something without being involved in making it should be a strong indication that the individual can’t be trusted.

        A systematic failure if you’d ask me (not that you did).

  2. We have not heard from Charles Vacanti yet. He was also a listed author to the Nature’s ‘Letter’ paper of H. Obokata (2014; 505: 676-680). This ‘Letter’ paper has a total of 11 authors, including Vacanti. Did Vacanti give his consent for retraction? Other than the ‘big’ names (Obokata, Sasai, Niwa and Wakayama), why we have not heard from other listed authors (Kadota, Andrabi, Takata, Tokoro, Terashita, Yonemura)?

  3. C.L.V.Murayama

    One important point to note is that RIKEN is also using the retraction as an argument for not investigating the letter. Isn’t it bizarre? The paper that was proved to be manipulated isn’t retracted but the other one that isn’t investigated at all is the first to be retracted??? And everybody agrees???

    RIKEN was very reluctant to investigate the letter, first arguing that the misconduct of Dr. Obokata has already been demonstrated and no further investigation is needed. As the pressure rose, there are using the retraction as an excuse not to investigate the letter.

    It is a very fishy move in my view and raise the question what there is in this letter to be hidden under any circumstances.

    1. An interview with Wakayama…

      In this interview he states that he found that the mice in figure 1 a and b are 2 different stap cell chimeras. In PubPeer people suggested long time ago that they are even the same individual!


      Reading carefully it seems that there is more than just using the wrong images.

  4. I admire your dedication to reporting on the issue. I just cannot understand her and Vacanti’s stubbornness. (xxxx edited for content).

  5. I think is clear that O doesn’t want to retract the article because of the filled patent. Regarding the letter, she thinks that it is just “an extension” of the article and in consequence less important. From my point of view, the letter claim that stap cells were totipotent had a more relevant biological implication, but with all the problems also found in this paper it was clear to me that this was also “too good to be true”. I’m happy that some of the authors acknowledge that there was something very wrong with this paper too.

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