Nature yanks article that was actually advertisement on controversial stem cells

Muse cell ad on Nature
Screenshot of MUSE cell article/ad in Nature.

Something very strange just happened at the journal Nature related to what’s called Muse cells. Kudos to them for dealing with it quickly though.

They published an unreviewed research “article” on controversial (perhaps non-existent) stem cells called “Muse cells” that was actually a paid advertisement. After I communicated with the Nature team eventually they ended up pulling down the ad/article as of today.

Muse cell ad on Nature
Screenshot of MUSE cell article/ad in Nature.

How can a research article be an advertisement? I don’t think it should be possible.

An “ad/article”?

Of course, research journals run more standard ads for things like reagents, equipment, and meetings, as a source of income, and that’s totally understandable, but this particular situation with the Muse cell ad/article was very different and weird.

The Nature ad/article came into being via something called “Nature Research Custom Media”. It seems to be a “sponsored content” branch of Nature Publishing Group. It’s another source of income for the big company Springer Nature.

You can see a screenshot of the top portion of the webpage when it used to have this Muse cell ad/article. Unfortunately, in the gray bar at the top of the ad’s webpage it said “nature>article”, which could easily have confused some readers into thinking this was a standard, peer-reviewed Nature research article.

Lower down it said “Advertisement feature,” which kind of suggested it was an ad, but it wasn’t entirely clear and the text was gray. I bet many people would have just skipped right over that.

The ad/article was entitled, “Tissue regeneration by Muse cells after acute myocardial infarction.” Its source is something called the Translational Research Center for Medical Innovation (TRI) in Japan. The “authors” of the ad/article were listed as follows: Shinya Minatoguchi, Yoshihisa Yamada, Shingo Minatoguchi, Shingo Minatoguchi, Atsushi Mikami, Shohei Wakao, Yoshihiro Kushida & Mari Dezawa. Oddly one author was listed twice.

The ad claimed that Muse cells can aid in heart regeneration. I’m very skeptical of that and just more broadly of these cells.

Why the skepticism? What are Muse cells?

“Muse” stands for “multilineage-differentiating stress enduring”. For a long time a few researchers have claimed that Muse cells are adult pluripotent stem cells found in various animals and humans. To me it makes no sense that adults would have pluripotent stem cells in their tissues and the data on Muse cells hasn’t been convincing to many of us in the stem cell field.

Others have said that Muse cells don’t naturally exist, but can be created by the stress of the isolation of the cells that become Muse cells by the end of the process. Frankly, some claims about Muse cells remind me a bit too much of the debunked STAP cells and the mysterious VSELs.

Still, there are believers out there in the field and it’s formally possible I’m wrong about Muse cells not existing.

Getting back to the Nature situation, why would authors choose to publish (and republish) data as an advertisement? Some of the “figures” in the advertisement seemed to have been sourced from their previously published papers.

To me at the very least this now “retracted” ad/article doesn’t exactly boost confidence in Muse cells.

Why would Nature publish such an ad?

Earlier this week I asked Nature about it and here’s part of the initial response I got from a spokesperson:

“As you have noticed, it is an advertisement feature and clearly marked as such, including a disclaimer beneath to explain that it has not been subject to peer review. Paid pieces like this do not have a DOI and aren’t picked up by indexing databases.

The content was supplied by the customer, TRI and has not been subject to editorial review, nor is it endorsed by Nature Research.

Since you got in touch we have reviewed the presentation of this ad and think we could do more to ensure that it is clear to all our readers that this client-supplied content is not editorially reviewed or endorsed. We have made some changes to the layout of this page and will review our guidelines for how we work with this type of branded content.

You can read more about the commercial content that Nature Research publishes here:

https://partnerships.nature.com/commercial-content-at-nature-research/”

Again, as of today the ad/article is gone, which is a very good thing like making the best of a bad situation. The field of science must not blur the line between research articles and ads.

4 Comments

  1. Lets see about tomorrow however… sounds like it was paid for and thus will be back in some format at some point in the future. Still very sketchy.

  2. Hello, Admin:

    You are asking the wrong question. Of course it’s an ad! And few would think otherwise, because Nature did a good job of identifying it as such. By the way, most will recognize “nature > article” as the website link tree that is very common at the top of pretty much all webpages. The right question is, “Who is responsible for the integrity of the content of this new ad format, even when it is recognized to be nothing but an ad?” Without the minimal assurances of peer-review, how is “truth in advertising” being assured in this new more in depth format? Even with Nature’s responsibility disclaimer, its superior image and reputation will make viewers tend to believe that the data, evaluations, and conclusions from these ad papers are valid and of integrity. Often they won’t be. If Nature is not going to take responsibility for the integrity of the contents of these “adicles,” then they are selling off yet another piece of the quality and integrity of scientific reporting for a few more bucks.

    Thanks for giving them what for, even if not quite on the mark that I’m suggesting. It could become a much bigger problem than just occasional confusion of these ads as peer-reviewed articles in the journal.

    James at Asymmetrex

  3. Picking up on “Who is responsible for the integrity…” may I add in a similar vein, the issue of Legal Compliance. I checked out this link: http://www.lawpublish.com/10-things-to-do-so-your-ads-comply-with-advertising-laws.html .For example, citing from the link.

    “1. Make Sure that You Substantiate Your Advertising Claims”
    “2. Be Sure that Your Advertising Claims Aren’t “Deceptive.” ”

    “6. You Should Become Familiar with the Advertising Law of the States Where You Do Business.”
    ….
    “10. You’ve Scrutinized Your Ads for What They Expressly Claim–What About Implied Claims?”

    Nature must be aware of such legal obligations even if protecting themselves with a legal disclaimer. Enablement of questionable claims within an Advert is a worry.

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