January 20, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

Did Obokata get a fair shake on STAP cell mess?

Whether STAP cells are real or baloney, much went wrong with the actual STAP cell Nature papers and the research reported in them by Obokata and her co-authors.

Who is responsible for these two deeply flawed papers?

Haruko Obokata
Haruko Obokata.

I’m not sure we have enough information at this time to know definitively how responsibility/blame should be apportioned, but first author Dr. Haruko Obokata has so far received the lion’s share of the blame.

Is that just?

Her institution RIKEN seems to be placing almost all of the blame on Obokata and publicly announced that they believed she had committed misconduct.

In contrast, her mentors there and at Harvard Medical School have, at least so far, apparently largely avoided serious repercussions from STAP.

In its report and press conferences, senior scientists and leaders from RIKEN have also publicly used surprisingly pejorative language about Obokata. For example, the Japan Times quoting the RIKEN report on STAP:

“The final report also noted Obokata’s “actions and sloppy data management lead us to the conclusion that she sorely lacks, not only a sense of research ethics, but also integrity and humility as a scientific researcher.””

That’s extremely tough and personal talk.

Is it fair?

Most of us do not have the knowledge to know.

To be clear, Obokata is one of the people primarily responsible for STAP. She was first author on both papers and corresponding author too. When these papers came out she was already a principal investigator.

At the same time though she had some very senior scientists with her on these papers and as her mentors they must share at least some significant responsibility with her for the STAP situation. It doesn’t really feel like these others have taken responsibility so far. Much of this has unfolded as predicted by guest blogger Robert Geller right here.

The journal Nature should have some responsibility too. We still have not heard from Nature on what it plans to do about STAP. Meanwhile two very screwed up papers still stand as is in Nature.

More broadly it feels as though the STAP situation is entering a quieter period with blame largely locked in on Obokata as perhaps the other parties involved hope if any further action is needed they can do so later, quietly, after things have calmed down.

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