August 4, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

PubPeer “Stem Cell Shoot Out” & STAP 2.0 Clarification

A heated series of discussions on stem cell publications is ongoing on the Post-publication review (post-pub) website, PubPeerwhich has been called by a PubPeer userThe stem cell shoot out“. This “shoot out” goes well beyond the one page on PubPeer.

It is notable to see that the authors of the papers that are the focus of these interactions, often prominent stem cell scientists, are now sometimes participating in the discussions by leaving comments themselves on PubPeer. For instance, Austin smith has commented on PubPeer regarding ground state stem cells and some of his lab’s work.

Jacob Hanna has also recently responded to PubPeer commenters in discussions on the website. This is a different case though as PubPeer commenters have raised a series of specific concerns regarding apparent re-use of data in multiple high-profile papers from Hanna’s doctoral work. Update: Retraction Watch also mentioned allegations of potential data manipulation in some of these papers as well.

As to the data re-use, an example is a Blood paper entitled “CXCL12 expression by invasive trophoblasts induces the specific migration of CD16- human natural killer cells” on which Hanna was first author. Commenters on PubPeer pointed out data re-use in this paper. Hanna responded that he didn’t see a problem with it (see screenshot image below). A commenter “Peer 1” disputed Hanna’s statement.

Hanna pubpeer

When I polled readers on scientists re-using their own data a few months ago, the results were notable and most respondents were OK with data re-use, but only as long as authors clearly acknowledged in the paper in question that they were re-using their own data from an earlier paper and cited it.

What do you think?

A number of other Hanna papers are being discussed on PubPeer including other instances of alleged data re-use and it’s still too early to say what more if anything will come of it. Since this is a situation that is rapidly evolving and very complicated, I’d recommend a cautious approach to it until more facts are available and perhaps Dr. Hanna will have more to say to clear things up. Again, it is not just Hanna involved in this “stem cell shootout”, but also other top scientists and papers. Also, to clarify this situation is not what I was referring to when I did a blog post on STAP 2.0. Stay tuned for more on that in the coming months as I think this other situation will come to light in 2015.

More broadly bioethics issues such as different kinds of image re-use or other data re-use and other issues warrant more open discussion. Because these issues only become apparent after publication, it follows that post-pub review fills an important needed role.

Two main areas of post-pub review are evident in the “stem cell shoot out” and elsewhere in post-pub review more generally: (1) conceptual and philosophical discussions and debates as well as (2) identification and discussion of potentially problematic issues in specific data sets (e.g. images) in publications.

Most readers of this blog favored post-pub review, but those who felt negatively about it were concerned about a “gotcha” mentality in a recent poll.  Some of the authors responding to concerns about their papers on PubPeer have voiced concerns or mixed feelings about the anonymity of most commenters and reviewers. It is notable that post-pub review on PubMed is non-anonymous and post-pub review on blogs (e.g. this one you are reading now) can be either anonymous or non-anonymous.

Anonymity in science is a complicated issue.

Without anonymity, many commenters simply would not participate in traditional pre-publication review or post-pub review because of legitimate fear of retaliation. With anonymity, clearly some commenters cross the line to non-constructive actions.

So what’s the best system of post-pub review?

I’m not sure there’s one “right” answer to this, but careful moderation of anonymous comments can address some of the concerns. Such moderation can become a complex, onerous task though, especially if one is disinclined to block comments but is also not a fan of comments that cross the line.

Post-pub review is having a rapidly growing influence in science and it’s so new that a number of these elements are evolving right before out eyes. Let’s see what develops. The examples on PubPeer are illustrative of the power of post-pub review as well as its growing pains. As to the “stem cell shootout”, it is likely to continue and spark discussion.

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