Don’t mess with (mother) Nature: why risk taking on a powerhouse journal?

Don't mess with mother natureWhen I was a kid there was this commercial on TV for Chiffon margarine (fake butter) with the slogan, “It’s not nice to fool mother nature!”

As a kid I thought it was dumb but kind of funny.

A modified version of that mother nature advertising slogan has become a cultural tagline. Don’t mess with mother nature!  Who knows, maybe “don’t mess with mother nature” predated Chiffon margarine.

Some scientists might have their own version of such a slogan “Don’t mess with (mother) Nature, the journal!” After all, Nature is a powerhouse and do you really want to piss off powerful people there? It’s a historic science institution of a sort.

Its first issue (you can see the table of contents here) was published 150 years ago. Some of the most important scientific advances during that century and a half have come out in Nature. It is not just a journal but also an entire publishing group and now the massive company Nature Springer.

Still, even Nature screws up sometimes. All journals do at times, but when Nature screws up, often times the stakes are way higher. Remember STAP cells? I bet Nature wishes you didn’t. Eventually the two Nature STAP papers were retracted after the scientific community raised concerns. That was another time I spoke up about a problem at the journal.

Getting back to advertising, but for science not margarine, a few days ago I published a piece on what I saw as a major, stem cell-related screwup at Nature. They published what seemed to be a research article, but what was actually an advertisement. This ad had a title, authors, different sections, figures, references…all the usual “paper” stuff. It even looked just like a paper, but it wasn’t peer or editorially reviewed. It also seemed to contain already published data and the authors probably had to pay big bucks to get it into “Nature.” I called it an “ad-article.”

This ad-article was promoting a controversial type of stem cell called Muse cells. To me it felt like an ad for the questionable idea of Muse cells. Who advertises a type of cell?

I can only imagine that the Nature decision makers who decided to publish this ad-article were not scientists. At least I hope they weren’t. Perhaps they thought the $20,000 (or $50,000 or whatever the price…maybe it is much lower than I imagine?) was a good revenue source for Nature the company.

I’m betting there are scientists at the journal who think this ad-article was a terrible idea. The Nature brand is worth too much to jeopardize it by running ad-articles.

More broadly, paid, unreviewed research content seems like a potential black hole for otherwise rigorous science journals. For these reasons, I felt it was worth the risk myself to publicly raise concerns about this thing in Nature that seemed problematic to me.

Was it wise of me to speak up?

I don’t know.

I hope it’ll make a positive difference. Nature did fairly quickly pull the ad-article off its website so that’s something.

I tried to make my original blog post here on The Niche about this problem very balanced and responsible in tone. The goal was not to attack the journal, but rather call attention to what I saw as a serious issue.

I didn’t know how other scientists would react, but the strong consensus from colleagues around the world has been that this ad-article was not a good move for science or Nature itself. Also, people valued the effort to raise awareness about it in a constructive manner.

Maybe this discussion will discourage journals in general from wading into the paid research content world too.

Getting back to that Chiffon margarine ad, there is some sad irony that margarine or basically “fake butter” has ended up being proven to be far more unhealthy than real butter, which in moderation is probably not a major health concern. I wonder if Muse cells (and the related VSELs) will someday be proven to be “fake” adult pluripotent stem cells and “unhealthy” for the stem cell field?

More broadly, I really hope we don’t see more sponsored content in journals.

2 thoughts on “Don’t mess with (mother) Nature: why risk taking on a powerhouse journal?”

  1. Who remembers MAPCs, another impossible stem cell fraught with fabrications and data anomalies! Also published in… got it!

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