Perspectives on STAP cell Nature paper retractions

The green light turns to red as STAP cell papers are retracted.
The green light turns to red as STAP cell papers are retracted.

The Obokata STAP cell papers in Nature were retracted today. It feels like it’s been a long time coming in one way as for months now it has felt like retraction was inevitable, but it’s been extraordinarily fast in another way as retractions almost never happen this fast. It’s a day of mixed feelings.

This is very sad as it affirms some serious problems, but it is also a day for the stem cell field to move on from this mess. It’s sort of like post-STAP day 1. There will of course be many more STAP developments popping up for months or even years as RIKEN still needs to figure out a plan, they are still trying to replicate STAP, we haven’t heard from Harvard/Brigham Women’s, etc. However, it still feels like the STAP cell paper controversy is at least more than half in the rear view mirror after today. Thank goodness. It seems like the right time for more reflection. You can read the retraction notices here that include the two research papers and a News & Views piece about them:

In the STAP research paper retractions, the authors have listed additional problems and errors.
Nature has published an editorial piece on the STAP situation as well that is notable. I’d be curious what people’s reactions are to it. In general my first take on it is that it is a positive step with some openness and reflections on how things can be improved in the future, but it also feels a bit conservative. That’s understandable. Update: After more thought and discussion, I think Nature should have been more open and taken more responsibility in its editorial. It is disappointing. While no reviewer and no journal can always catch certain kinds of misconduct in papers including the STAP ones, there were things about the STAP cell papers that were big red flags. Call me an inherent skeptic, but within a few minutes of first reading the STAP papers I felt something was seriously wrong.
A big hat tip goes to post-publication peer review and social media for helping move on from STAP. It wasn’t always a pleasant process and was a real roller coaster ride, but it helped greatly to resolve the situation and increased transparency. Without social media, the STAP papers would in all likelihood remain unretracted through 2015. Why does that matter? Beyond damage to the field’s reputation, there are more practical considerations. Millions of dollars in scarce research funds would have been wasted along with potential damage to many young scientists’ careers who might have been directed to work on STAP in labs around the world potentially for years.
Overall, I think the stem cell field dealt with STAP quickly and in an open manner that reflects a dedication to good science. I don’t see any major lasting harm from this and in part that is the case exactly because it was dealt with so directly.

18 thoughts on “Perspectives on STAP cell Nature paper retractions”

  1. Broader field has a huge record of high profile train wreck papers. This after pushing stem cells as going to fix all the old people’s problems if only the darned fundies weren’t gumming up the works. Where’s my miracle cure?

  2. This is a great post. It would be nice if something like this could be published as an op-ed in one of the major papers. The stories coming out this week are really using this as proxy to trash the broader field.

  3. The economist Prof. J. K. Galbraith might have called this “innocent fraud.” It is a natural consequence of the institutional framework and mis-placed incentives.
    But in this day and age all the talk of damage has been of that to scientists’ careers. What about the patients — and their families and physicians — (such as those with ALS) placing a false sense of hope on these developments as well as sponsoring the big government boondoggle research agendas? It is big money in Japan’s aging society. Japan research supports Nature with big money — and a Japanese translation and big subscription fees — and as a consequence this whole matter was well-conceived as an incentivized experiment for a young researcher to put everything on-the-line for big money research in Japan. She just might have well been working for a hedge-fund. She could not have known — she is too young to understand. Science will move on with this kind of limited/zero liability regime for science with no partnership level responsibility or accountability. Young scientists would probably need to have a Ph.D. in economics to understand all the conflicts of interest facing them. This challenge of managing the conflicts of interests in a research environment needs to be part of the science curriculum for today’s big money winner-take-all science tournaments and patent races among the research sponsor institutions.
    GGP 20140704 Tokyo

  4. Peer review cannot “catch” these kinds of mistakes (or fraud). The responsibility lies with the PIs.

  5. I agree with the views of Robert Geller. The self-serving retraction statement of Haruko Obokata et al. in the Nature (July 3, 2014) does not mention about the plagiarism. It begins with, “Several critical errors….”, among which plagiarism was one. In the final paragraph, they only “apologize for the mistakes included”.

    1. The situation is a bit complicated. Obokata et al.’s retraction only mentions additional questionable items not mentioned in the Riken investigation report. They include the Riken reports as a supplement to their retraction. Since the plagiarism from Guo et al is mentioned in Items 1-3 and 1-4 on page 5 of the supplement, Obokata et al. don’t mention it in the main body of their retraction itself.

      My point though was to criticize Nature. A routine check by a plagiarism detector during the review process would have caught the plagiarism and thereby alerted Nature to the existence of other problems.

  6. I think your Knoepfler blog was a big factor for this swift retraction. Your criticism was often cited in Japanese newspaper, as almost no Japanese scientist except Wakayama publicly criticized the STAP paper in fear of retaliation, because the RIKEN authors has a huge clout. Please keep doing what you are doing.

    1. “almost no Japanese scientist except Wakayama publicly criticized the STAP paper in fear of retaliation”

      This is absolutely untrue. I have seen numerous Japanese scientists criticizing the STAP debacle on blogs and especially on twitter, constantly since February. Just to give some names that I recall, Akira Yoshimura, Jun Seita, Norio Nakatsuji, Keiko Torii, Shinichi Nakagawa, Hitoshi Sawa, Shigeru Kondo, Hal Tasaki, and many more.

      Just because you don’t see their opinions in English media doesn’t mean that they didn’t raise their voices.

      But the way RIKEN has been dealing with this is indeed a disgrace.

      1. I disagree with you. If you “lower the bar” to include any random tweet by random scientist, of course you will find criticism. But did you find any REAL stem cell scientist who holds PI level position at major Japanese university who made a coherent criticism on major paper right after the STAP scandal? I didn’t find any. Prof. Knoepfler was listed as a stem cell expert on Japanese and English Wikipedia, and his criticism appeared on, for example, Wall Street Journal Japanese edition ( Yamanaka, Takahashi, Okano etc were all quiet, and that’s what I was talking about.

        1. You say random scientists.

          Professor Norio Nakatsuji is “Professor & Founding Director, iCeMS, Kyoto Univ. and Chief Adviser, Kyoto Stem Cell Innovation, Inc. Stem cell biologist specialized in human ES/iPS cells.” So, he is a big shot.

          Professor Toru Nakano has been critical. He is a professor at Laboratory of Stem Cell Pathology at Osaka University.

          From the Molecular Biology Society of Japan, president Noriko Osumi and directors Akira Shinohara, Yasunori Machida, and Shigeru Kondo have made official statements expressing their criticisms.

          Keiko Torii, although a plant scientist, is an investigator for Howard Hughes Medical Institute. It is a prestigious position.

          Professor Akihiko Yoshimura (I wrote Akira Yoshimura by mistake) is an immunologist who works at Keio University and has made some important discoveries in signaling. He pointed out that the FACS data in one of the STAP papers was a work of amateur.

          Professor Tasuku Honjo, a Robert Koch Prize-winning immunologist, recently wrote an article in a major (non scientific) Japanese magazine criticizing RIKEN.

          As for Yamanaka, he was in a tricky situation because the STAP cells were hailed as a competing technology to the iPS cells. If he had criticized the STAP cells, he could have been seen as jealous.

          Anyway, I think I made my case.

    2. Please note that although I, for example, am an American citizen I have held a permanent faculty position in Japan for about 30 years and am a permanent resident of Japan. And I have been a strong critic of the STAP papers and Riken.

      So perhaps you should use wording other than “Japanese scientist” that does not exclude the many foreign scientists (i.e., non-Japanese citizens) who hold long-term or permanent positions in Japan, such as myself.

      I’m sure that you had no intention to discriminate on the basis of citizenship, but maybe that’s how it comes across….

  7. Unbelievable!!!

    Nature allowed the following claim by Obokata et al. to be included in the retraction.

    “We apologize for the mistakes included in the Article and Letter. These multiple errors impair the credibility of the study as a whole and we are unable to say without doubt whether the STAP-SC phenomenon is real. Ongoing studies are investigating this phenomenon afresh, but given the extensive nature of the errors currently found, we consider it appropriate to retract both papers.”

    This violates one of the fundamental principles of scientific research, which is that we always start with the null hypothesis (STAP, the Loch Ness monster, etc., doesn’t exist), and we only reject the null hypothesis when we get sufficiently strong positive evidence.

    Am I the only person who thinks it was shameful for Nature to publish this self-serving statement by Obokata et al.?

  8. Nature’s pleas of “how could we have known?” are, as the original post (as modified) and the earlier comments have already noted, lame and unconvincing.

    Just for the record though, let me mention two items Nature should easily have caught: (1) the 150 or so words copied from Guo et al, which a plagiarism detector would easily have caught had Nature bothered to check; (2) the failure by the authors to declare their patent application (original filing made in April 2012) in “competing financial interests.”
    Catching either of the above would and should have triggered alarms that would have led to a check that would have uncovered many of the other problems.

    Also, Nature’s rules on co-author responsibility are vague. They say ( “The editors at the Nature journals assume that at least one member of each collaboration, usually the most senior member of each submitting group or team, has accepted responsibility for the contributions to the manuscript from that team.” But this is too vague. In the cases of the STAP article, for example, Drs. Obokata, Sasai, Wakayama, and Niwa were all PIs. Does this mean each is responsible only for his/her own lab’s contribution, and no one is responsible for the whole Riken contribution? If so, this should be changed in the future. One author should have been responsible for the entire Riken contribution, including checks of the data and files, and that person should have been named in the “contributions” section.

  9. Eh. I’m not convinced or terribly moved by their “we couldn’t have done anything different but here are the things we will do different” line of reasoning. I’d also like to know why they finally accepted the paper after having rejected it; what were the concerns that were addressed, or was it just a different editor?

  10. I’m a bit troubled by the Nature editorial saying that the reviewers and editors could not have detected the problems. If not them, then who? Someone has to be responsible for keeping the literature free of fraud.

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