January 25, 2021

The Niche

Trusted stem cell blog & resources

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.
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