This morning I woke up to the latest developments in the STAP cell scandal. While I was sleeping the Riken Center for Developmental Biology, where first author Haruko Obokata is based, gave a 4 hour news conference to address questions based around the issues that have come to light with the publications. I believe a discussion of the technical issues to do with the paper itself will be discussed elsewhere and in better detail than I can produce. I want to discuss some thoughts that came to my mind upon reading this.
After discussing this with others the journal Nature has come under fire with calls for them to release the reviewers’ comments and correspondence between the editor and the authors. In some ways openness and transparency is a good thing, but I think until official retractions have taken place, Nature cannot afford to bow to such demands. Furthermore, this would set a precedent for other papers in their journal and is something they would have to consider carefully. Nature doesn’t routinely do this as far as I am aware so I am not sure they will start now. Another consideration is what would revealing this information actually resolve? Not much I don’t think. Part of the problem is that Nature has such a high impact factor that people want to submit there rather than perhaps more rigorous, open access journals that have a lower impact factor. However, that is a different story.
I was also made aware that Haruko Obokata’s thesis has been subjected to major scrutiny. A few of these problems include the fact that her introduction appears to have been copied in huge chunks without referencing. Click here for a side by side comparison.
UPDATE:- There are a number of sources claiming that the version of the thesis circulating is not her final copy and that her actual thesis does not contain the plagiarized section. I can’t access the sites where this defense has been made, but want to point this out.
Additionally, some of the figures appear to have been lifted from company websites. See images below.
I should point out that I did get referred to this information from a colleague, but in respect to their privacy I will not name them on this blog!
As far as I am aware, Obokata has claimed that these are genuine mistakes as opposed to deliberately misleading. Whatever the true reason, I think making her the sole scapegoat of the papers is a little unfair:
“Nobel Laureate and Riken executive director Dr. Ryoji Noyori repeatedly referred to her as “immature and sloppy.” Dr. Masatoshi Takeichi, who heads the developmental biology center where she works, opened the news conference by saying her papers “don’t take the shape of papers.”
In defense of the papers we have senior author Charles Vacanti’s views and I do believe that more time is needed to determine if these results are reproducible:
“I continue to feel that the findings presented in these papers are too significant to disregard based on relatively minor errors or external pressures. In the absence of compelling evidence that the data presented is incorrect, I do not believe that the manuscripts should be retracted,” Vacanti said. “I firmly believe that the most appropriate course of action at this time is to clarify, in a very specific manner, all of the subtleties associated with the creation of STAP cells by posting specific details of our most effective protocol on our laboratory web site.”
While I agree that what happened is something that Obokata is responsible for, the buck doesn’t stop with her. Why did her supervisors let this fly? Why was it not picked up by her examiners? In terms of the papers, why did the co-authors not pick this up? Why did the peer reviewers not identify the issues? Why did the editor fail to notice? All of these people did not detect or chose to ignore what many of the public has identified as major flaws. Either it was at best sloppy, at worst a deliberate turning a blind eye to secure hits on the Nature site. If you think about it this controversy will have led to a lot of people looking at the articles and there is that old saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Meanwhile Obokata has been suspended and “Her “psychological condition” isn’t well”. Personally, I hope she is alright, but as a Research Unit Leader of the Laboratory for Cellular Reprogramming if she really has committed fraud, it is inexcusable.
What this whole situation has highlighted is that the peer review process is far from perfect, something that most researchers are aware of, but aren’t sure how to fix. The reviewer system is based on trust, but in an era where there is more and more competition for funding, I believe that paranoia about papers being sent out to competitors resulting in rejection and them taking your ideas. Conversely, if you select your “science friends” then there is a probability that they may overlook flaws. I am not saying that this is intentional, but reviewers are just people, are not perfect and are capable of making mistakes just like the rest of us. Even so-called experts get it wrong sometimes. The one good thing that has come out of this is that in this instance where the peer review process has failed, the problems with the publication have been identified.
UPDATE:- This may be a somewhat controversial opinion, but I think that in some ways Paul Knoepfler’s blog has gone too far with its weekly poll about whether people believe in STAP or not. It is feeling more and more like a version of the Daily Mail as time goes by. I don’t want to rock any boats, but believe that opinions should be shared and I think that news sources would do well to check for views beyond what his blog states. Not everyone supports a witch hunt and mob mentality.
The quest for the truth continues.