STAP cell predictions

stap cell questions.
STAP cell questions.

Now that it appears that the authors have all consented to eventually have both of their STAP cell Nature papers retracted, what’s next for STAP?

Who knows, but below is my attempt at a top 10 list of STAP predictions looking ahead. I hope I’m wrong about several of them.

  • 10. No insight will come from Nature on the STAP review or editorial process and there will be no indication from them that anything went wrong at their level.  I predict the journal will never open up about the editorial and review process behind the STAP debacle. If the papers are finally retracted (keep in mind that they have not yet been actually retracted) by authors as seems most likely at this point, I figure that for Nature that will be the end of the story. I hope I’m wrong.
  • 9. Obokata does not sue RIKEN. She and the institution make a private agreement/settlement (perhaps already a done deal given how things are shaping up with her rejoining the STAP validation team at RIKEN).
  • 8. STAP patent gets approved. Despite all the problems with the STAP scientific story, the US Patent Office approves the STAP cell patent anyway. Crazy, huh?
  • 7. Someone somewhere claims to get STAP to work, but the data are very weak.
  • 6. No news from Brigham and Women’s or Harvard Medical School regarding any potential institutional reactions related to STAP at least until 2015 and perhaps never.
  • 5. At least one person leaves RIKEN related to STAP. This happens either because of their links to STAP or conversely because they find the whole thing too ugly to bear.
  • 4. More retractions or corrections of other papers from at least one or more of the STAP paper authors.
  • 3. More top tier journal stem cell paper problems unrelated to STAP, despite STAP as a potential learning experience. Few lessons will be learned from STAP at the stem cell publication level. One or more likely more stem cell papers in a high-impact, top tier journal will have serious problems (e.g. be retracted, be on a possible path to retraction, have major data manipulation, etc.) in the next 12 months.
  • 2. No convincing reports published in 2014 that STAP cells, as they were portrayed in the Nature articles, really exist.
  • 1. No imminent Obokata departure. Obokata stay at RIKEN at least through the end of 2014. There may even be rumors that she can help the RIKEN team get STAP to work again.

6 thoughts on “STAP cell predictions”

  1. An interesting read:

    It looks like I may have been wrong with #5! The “reform committee” is taking things way more seriously than I assumed. If the committee recommendations to dismantle the CDB are followed, it sounds like the ones responsible for the STAP scandal (Sasai and Takeichi) may actually get in trouble! I’m sure they find new jobs, but perhaps won’t immediately receive as generous amakudari (Japanese “golden handshake”) deals as I expected.

    Moreover, if it quickly gets verified that Obokata’s STAP cells were in fact ES cells, I suppose the aftermath and future investigations may take a different course. I guess any re-enactment of Obokata’s experiment or any attempts to produce STAP cells become obsolete. One of the relevant questions is whether or not Obokata orchestrated the alleged scam all by herself. Sasai wrote at least one of the papers — did he do it in good faith, i.e., was he fooled, or did he actually have a more active role in the alleged scam?

    (note, two edits: word “alleged” inserted)

  2. I’m not sure, how many of the readers of this Blog attempted to communicate with the Nature editorial team, regarding this STAP cell ‘research kabuki’ play. I did. Here is my record of email correspondences. I submitted my critical comments pertaining to the abstract of the Main Article to the correspondence section in early February. I have given the same information previously, in my comments to the previous blog ‘Top 10 lessons from STAP cell fiasco so far’ (April 16, 2014). To my submission, I received an email on Feb.7, from Ella Kahn (Correspondence Assistant/Nature). The text was as follows:

    “Dear Dr. Kantha,
    Thanks you for your Correspondence submission, which we regret we are unable to publish. Pressure on our limited space is severe, so we can offer to publish only a very few of the many submissions we receive. However, we would like to draw your attention to our online commenting facility in case you would be prepared to post your letter there instead. In which case, please go to the original article on our website ( and enter your message in the box provided beneath it. Thank you again for writing to us.”

    To this email from Ella Khan, I responded on Feb.10th, with a little dose of humor as follows:
    “Dear Ms. Ella Khan,
    Thanks for your email announcement on my correspondence submission. Hope you take some minutes to read this mail. It is not a plea for reconsideration of your team’s judgment. I don’t know, how old you are, but I’m 60 now. Between 1986 and 1997, I had submitted many items to this Correspondence or Scientific Correspondence section, and had the pleasure in seeing my submissions printed in the Nature 14 times (except for the last one in 1997, all submissions were accepted when Sir John Maddox was the editor). Of course, I also did receive rejections of my submissions in a post-card, boldly printed in yellow color with the ‘Nature’ logo. I keep them for my memories, because as mementos from your Nature office, they were beautiful to keep and preserve, rather than a printed ‘form letter’ delivered by email.
    You know well, and I know well that the reason you mention, “Pressure on our limited space is severe, so we can offer to publish only a very few of the many submissions we receive.” is nothing but crap! My recent submission was to correct a scientific error, in which the authors, reviewers and ultimately the Editor-in-Chief had goofed. It was a case of either reviewers and the Editor-in-Charge not wanting to accept the error or willing to accept the error.
    I have a valid suggestion to solve this crap answer of Nature team which you had delivered to me. As of last count, the Nature stable publishes 20 ‘Nature’ journals beginning from Nature Arabic edition to Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, leaving another 15 of Nature Reviews series. How about, opening up another Nature stable journal, entitled, ‘Nature – Criticism of Nature Publications’? This would aptly solve your problem of finding space for submissions. This ‘Nature-Criticism of Nature Publications’ need not be a print journal. It could be maintained electronically.
    After all, you know, science stands on three pillars – empiricism, communication and criticism. If Nature folks falls shy and behave timidly on valid criticism of the studies they had published, it will show up on the quality of their publications. As a teacher, I can show it as good demonstration for my students on how even crap can pass through the filters of Nature’s reviewers and editors. Best regards.

    To my suprise, the very next day (on Feb.11, 2014), I did receive an email from Ms. Rosalind Cotter, who signed herself as Correspondence Editor, Nature. I reproduce the text of her mail to me.
    “Dear Dr. Kantha,
    Thank you for your message. I perhaps should have explained in more detail why we could not offer to publish your Correspondence, which was a comment related to a recent research paper in Nature. The reason is that we no longer have a Scientific Correspondence section, which, as you know, was where we used to publish informal comments such as yours on our research papers. Instead, ‘Brief Communications Arising’, an online-only, peer-reviewed section of the journal, is where we publish such comments, but these are restricted to technical criticisms that present new data to challenge the main conclusions of the Nature paper.
    So your comment clearly could not be considered as a Brief Communication Arising, but neither was it suitable for the Correspondence section, which i intended for replies to our journalistic material.
    This is why we suggested that you post your letter at the foot of the article itself, where it will most effectively contribute to the discussion in the community. I apologise if I have inadvertently caused offence. Kind Regards.
    PS: Contrary to your assumptions, the ‘space’ argument is very real: we can only publish 5 letters a week and often receive 10x that number. We are therefore forced to turn away any that do not comply with our guidelines, and also many that do.

    My final comment to this email, sent on the same day (Feb.11) was as follows:
    Dear Ms. Rosalind Cotter,
    Thanks a lot for taking the trouble to explain the situation you face currently. I do appreciate it very much. Me, posting my critical comments at the end of the article, is faulty in my thinking. It doesn’t have the imprimatur of the Nature’s editorial desk at all. It appears like as a silly comment posted in tabloid material, to soothe the sentiments of a reader. That’s all I can say, and I could evaluate the difference between Sir John Maddox’s stature and that of current Editor in Chief of Nature. Thanks again for responding to my views, and I hardly expected that I’d hear from you.”

  3. 10. Most physicists probably still remember the Jan Hendrik Schön scandals, which involved the retraction of no less than 28 papers, published in 2001 (9 papers in Science, 7 in Nature; not bad!) He never admitted anything. Science was the first journal to withdraw papers in late 2002, and Nature was the last, half a year later. Nature does not have a very good track record in withdrawing papers; it is run by a private publishing company for the sole purpose to make money. Why should Nature do the right thing? I think item 10 on your list is a very accurate description of how Nature deals with this kind of stuff, but we’re gonna have to wait a few more months for either of the papers to actually disappear.
    9 & 1. Why two separate items? Anyways, my first question a few months ago was how do you become a team leader at RIKEN in the first place. Slowly, the media has been picking up on this, and in the last week there have been a few pieces on the fact that Obokata did not enter RIKEN the usual way. Personnel and grant approval policies are the last thing RIKEN wants to discuss in public. I suspect Haruko has one or two stories to tell, which are juicy enough to secure her employment at RIKEN until retirement.
    8. You can patent anything, and there’s no rule that patents should be “true”.
    7. I wouldn’t be surprised if the RIKEN group were to “find hints of the STAP mechanism” and leave the question open.
    6. There’s a good scapegoat in Japan, so better shut up.
    5. Yes, this is the Japanese thing to do. One of the RIKEN leaders resigns, bows deeply before and after apologizing and taking all the blame. Please not that a few months later, this person will receive some honorary scientific advisor position with a rather generous monthly stipend that goes on indefinitely.
    4. I wouldn’t be so sure.
    3. Yeah, Nature is particularly corrupt (see above), but peer review is broken. Especially at the high impact level, to qualify as an “expert referee” most of the time puts you in the same boat with the authors of the paper you should reject.
    2. Yes, but no complete rebuttals, either.

    I think it was the Schön scandal that prompted Nature to include a mandatory description of “author contributions”. Even Nature is learning from its mistakes. Anyways, Schön was made the scapegoat, and he even lost his PhD degree His coauthors got away. Looks quite similar to the present STAP scandal. Too bad the Japanese press isn’t literate enough to notice the subtle difference between “I got involved in the project only at a very late stage and am not familiar with any of the details” and “Author_so_and_so contributed to designing the study”…

    1. Re: #8.
      Actually, you can’t just patent anything, and there is in fact a rule that patents must be “true”- in the USA, both of these aspects are addressed by a little federal law called 35 USC 101. However, the USPTO is not able to conduct independent experiments to validate findings and so applicants are generally given the benefit of the doubt unless actual evidence exists to show that it doesn’t work (this is what happened with the Hwang SCNT patent- note that the USPTO initially rejected the application based on the Science retractions and eventually only allowed claims drawn to a single oocyte line when separate evidence was submitted for that one oocyte line; thus, the final granted Hwang patent was chopped down to only cover a single oocyte line that, if I understood it right, wasn’t made using the same method used in the Science papers). Also note that 35 USC 112 says that a patent disclosure has to offer sufficient information that anyone working in the field can practice the invention. Thus, if actual evidence exists that what is being claimed doesn’t work (which may well be the case here given the well-chronicled failed attempts to replicate the findings) or that insufficient information was provided for someone else to make it work (which again may well be the case here), the USPTO may reject; however, the USPTO cannot arbitrarily call BS on an applicant.

  4. The whole controversy surrounding the Nature publications and Obokata’s PhD thesis (which reportedly contains plagiarised passages and inconsistent referencing) really calls into question the peer review process. The PhD thesis was reviewed by 4 examiners, whilst I assume that the Nature articles also went through a rigorous review process. I find it extremely concerning that it has taken until now for the irregularities in Obokata’s work to be made public. Was it a case of the irregularities being noticed, and no one saying anything? Or were they simply not picked up? Both situations seem equally bad.

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