STAP stem cell new allegations: situation turns darker

OstrichesI don’t know about you, but this whole STAP stem cell thing has got me kind of bummed out.

Last night I was thinking to perhaps stop blogging about it as the situation turns darker, but it seems like it wouldn’t do any good to ignore it.

The ostrich with head in the sand approach won’t work here (image from Wikipedia). Heads up, eyes and minds open, and push for dialogue. I’m continuing to reach out to the scientists involved to talk and keep it respectful.

As the series of troubles for STAP stem cells just continues to grow and grow like a weed, it’s hard to see a happy ending here. The situation has become a high risk one for both individuals and the stem cell field.

The latest STAP stem cell allegations include a charge of plagiarism and additional alleged image duplications from other papers.

The alleged plagiarism is in the Obokata, et al. Nature STAP stem cell article and taken from a Guo J, et al. In Vitro Cell Dev Biol Anim 2005 paper entitled “Multicolor karyotype analyses of mouse embryonic stem cells”. There sure seems to be a lot of overlap in text in the two papers in some methods descriptions shown in red on that website.

I’ve heard people react to this by saying “no big deal, it’s just a methods section”, while I’ve heard others say “this is misconduct”. I’m sure many people fall somewhere in the middle.

What’s your opinion?

As if that weren’t enough, there is now also a new allegation that two other papers from one of the STAP cell labs share what seems to be one and the same image of trachea, but with directly conflicting figure legends. This is not directly related to STAP stem cells, but it doesn’t exactly build trust.

What’s next?

I’m sure that some of the scientists involved did nothing serious wrong and at most may be guilty of nothing more than rushing and/or being trustful of research collaborators, but they are caught up in this unfolding, painful situation nonetheless.

It’s a nightmare scenario that is likely to get worse before there’s even a chance for it to get better. But maybe in the end there’ll be some lessons to learn from the carnage.

34 thoughts on “STAP stem cell new allegations: situation turns darker

  1. I’ve been following this coverage, and I’m really, really glad that you’re not ignoring the worsening situation here. I’m sharing this news with other people every day. They are not scientific experts (well, I’m not either, but I pass the knowledge on!!;), and they really have no other way to learn these details. Most people in the U.S., even intelligent, educated people, are truly intimidated by science and have no idea how to find accurate information or debates. Every time you get the facts out there, you add a little bit of knowledge to the world! :)

    • Thanks, Anise. It has been a real rollercoaster ride to follow this story and blog about unfortunate events related to STAP is no picnic.

  2. It would likely not benefit the stem cell world for the STAP controversy to go “tabloid.” There are escalating positive developments in many stem cell labs and those deserve the energy of the best minds. If misconduct has occurred, it will be documented in the ongoing investigations. The current events are troubling, and the lessons will be the same once the organized investigations complete versus blow-by-blow coverage. Then again, train wrecks attract crowds, if that is the aim.

    • Hmmm….. As for the ultimate verdict I suppose this should be left to Nature and Riken’s ongoing investigation, but it should be borne in mind that the problems they are investigating were uncovered by crowd-sourced investigations on the internet in the first place. So it’s probably good for the crowd-sourced investigation to keep going. As long as it’s focused on turning up additional specific problems rather than ad hominem comments I don’t think this is “going tabloid” at all. It’s pretty amazing what’s been turned up so far.

      As an outsider to this field it’s hard for me to judge, but my general impression is that many of the problems could and should have been caught if someone (a referee, editor, senior co-author,….) had actually sat down and read the paper carefully before it was published.

      And again, as an outsider to this field it’s hard to say, but it does seem that if some of the more superficial typos had been uncovered in bulk during the review/editing process that the general air of sloppiness that seems to be present (again, I can’t be sure) might have led to digging into some of the deeper issues…..and might have led to either withdrawal/rejection of the paper, or reworking/editing by the authors to produce a higher quality paper.

      • Hi Robert,
        I don’t believe the ultimate verdict will be via the formal investigations, but rather delivered by the scientific community at large. No matter what Nature or RIKEN investigations conclude (e.g. if they whitewash serious problems), if the overall community views things differently than the investigations, that gestalt will rule. This is part of the reason why I believe that getting the conversation going and keeping it going (e.g. via blogging) is so important.
        As to the scientific/editorial review process of the STAP papers, it seemed to miss a lot of issues that if they had been caught earlier could have saved a lot of problems later.

        • So what you’re saying is even if this discovery is real, and all of the information will be corrected, it still won’t matter because of the public opinion you’ve incubated in your blog?

          • No. I’m saying the investigations will not determine if the STAP discovery is real. The stem cell community doing experiments will collectively figure out if STAP stem cells are real. If such positive results start being published and/or enter the public domain through our crowdsourcing page or in some other manner, I’ll be as happy as anyone.

    • Thanks for the comment, Charles. One of the problems with the STAP situation is that it went tabloid at the beginning the other way–too positive like STAP would change the entire world forever. Some balance and reality checking is important.

      I would also argue that the lessons here may well NOT be the same if it were not for PubPeer and blogging about STAP because Nature, even in investigative mode, would surely never have uncovered some of these issues themselves. As a result, the community approach to following the STAP story, as much as it is painful at times, has led to more transparency and clarity.

    • Have you seen the recent Pew poll? 25% of all Americans honestly do not know that the earth goes around the sun. Yet 90% believe that science is important and that more science education is indeed. Scientific controversy on any subject can’t be a closely hoarded and/or publicly undiscussed secret.All that would ever accomplish would be to ultimately leave a vague feeling in a lot of people’s minds that the whole stem cell field isn’t valid or can’t be trusted. And it would be because they never had a chance to learn any accurate information.

  3. Paul-
    Thanks so much for being willing to provide a central source of discussion about these issues. You’ve focused everyone’s attention on what really matters- the pattern of flaws in multiple papers by the same authors. I am a stickler about plagiarism- don’t do it. Don’t even plagiarize yourself…by ORI (office of research integrity) standards, self-plagiarism is not any more excusable than plagiarizing someone else’s work. In this case, the plagiarism was of someone else’s work, which can’t even be excused as a stupid mistake in getting text mixed up.
    I’m not angry with the authors, just disappointed that the standards seem to be so low.
    By the way, reviewers are not supposed to be identified, but I want to tell you that I did NOT review the Nature papers.

    • Thanks, Jeanne. As a stem cell scientist first and a blogger who squeezes it in often while eating or at night at the expense of sleep, following STAP on my blog has been painful at times and an overall strange experience. I want to let people know also that I’ve been repeatedly reaching out to the STAP stem cell authors in a respectful and constructive manner to try to get their side of the story out there for balance. I’ve also been trying to talk to Nature too.

  4. The main post says “I’m sure that some of the scientists involved did nothing serious wrong and at most may be guilty of nothing more than rushing and/or being trustful of research collaborators, but they are caught up in this unfolding, painful situation nonetheless.”

    Again, this isn’t my field and I don’t want to be overly harsh, but there seems to be a pretty loose view of the responsibilities of co-authors. Beyond some level you can’t check and have to trust your co-authors, but at a minimum shouldn’t every co-author have been expected to have carefully read through the final manuscript before submission and also upon submission of the revised ms. At least some of the problems should probably have been caught by a careful pre-publication check by the co-authors. If people aren’t willing to take the responsibility of carefully reading a paper that they’re co-author of then they shouldn’t be a co-author.

    I suppose fairness should compel me to add that in my own field, seismology, it sometimes appears clear that senior co-authors of a paper first-authored by a grad student or post-doc haven’t always taken their responsibilities seriously. (This is especially apparent when the co-authors are native speakers or English and the first author is not.)

    • Co-author responsibility varies and is tricky, especially in the context of a rush to publish complicated papers involving teams that may not communicate with each other very effectively. I suppose one could argue that one lesson from STAP is to not put your name as an author on just any paper and if you do have your name on a paper in a collaborative paper in the works, there are potentially serious risks to not taking that seriously.

  5. Americans are obsessed by plagiarism. Self-plagiarism, plagiarism of methods: let s/he who has not sinned cast the first stone. These issues simply rise nowhere close on the problematic scale compared to data manipulation and duplication.

    Of course it is poor form – why not just cite the original paper? How likely is it that the plagiarized method is really the method followed by the authors? In this case, the latter worry is far more of a concern than petty ethical concerns.

    • The world is watching – and there needs to be some care about distinguishing between the major and minor problems in the STAP papers . Americans are particularly sensitive to any charge of plagiarism. However excessive hand wringing over duplication of language in a *methods* section really is over blown. Finding novel ways to describe a standard Western analysis (say), because of ethical considerations, is simply a poor use of time. And yes, it risks being petty to hold someone’s feet to the fire, particularly with self-plagarism, in a *methods* section. Although, again I say, it was (very) poor form to deny the original authors a citation.

      Stealing ideals and data, copying results sections, making up data, conflicts of interest in the reviewing process, using the same data in different papers/figures; these are different and very serious matters.

    • hi,

      could you summarize as to why you think obokata has been driven into a corner? i know you are trying to be respectful by linking the article and asking the readers to insinuate, however that article isn’t accessible by the general public (unless they are subscribers).


      • Dear Gagz,
        I am not a subscriber and never pay when I open Nature’s website, but I could access the 2 papers.
        Maybe they have been made open access, due to this ado??

        You can try it yourself.

  6. Interesting thing about the plagiarism website. It looks like a thesis also plagiarized the same thing. A lab in Germany, a lab in Boston or Japan, and possibly another lab in Germany (thesis) are all using a “Leica DM RXA RF8 epifluorescence microscope (Leica Mikrosysteme GmbH) equipped with a Sensys CCD camera (Photometrics). Camera and microscope were controlled by the Leica Q-FISH software (Leica Microsystems). ”

    I guess it is possible that the Germany labs (2005 first article, 2012 for thesis) could be using the same microscope 8 years apart, but I think it is a stretch that the Boston lab and/or Japan lab is using the identical Leica system. Amazing stuff.

    • Does anyone know how prevalent is the use of the Leica microscope + Sensys CCD camera combo in the stem cell labs? Maybe everyone is using it?

      Obokata probably should show a picture of herself sitting next to the Leica camera. There are people speculating that the alleged tests were not even performed.

  7. Is this a joke? “Plagiarism” over a materials section? I guess now I need to rewrite my cell culture every time too, or else I’m guilty of “self plagiarism”. Or should I be throwing in some `1940s refs on the cell culture techniques? Give me a break guys, this kind of nit picking is going way overboard. Or I guess I can start rewriting those sections every time… maybe I’ll do old english to make sure nobody has described cell culture that way so that I can be safe from “plagiarism”! “Thou then received the DMEM with 10 parts per hundred of serum of a beast combined with 1 part per 100 of the by product of the green rot of a loaf of bread from the box that contains the cold breath of a witch.”. Is that better guys? God forbid we reuse the same description! Honestly, if these are “scientists” concerns, I wonder how it is they have time to get anything done in a day…

    That’s not commenting on the general paper either, which may be a pile of manure for all I know. But this feeding frenzy picking out stuff like copy paste materials and methods (when you did the same technique already!) is absurd.

  8. Would everyone taking this seriously be willing to assure that all of their papers have no missing references, anywhere, to original work?

    I’m sure now that it has been noticed the authors will gladly adjust the appropriate citation and it will appear as a correction. The other new allegation doesn’t include Obokata in either paper.

    • Hi Joe,
      I think you make some good points. I also think these kinds of mistakes are likely going to happen more often when authors are in a big rush.

      • I don’t think copying methods is a huge issue. when you have a good protocol, you use it. But having the exact instrumentation and hardware for a microscope between 2005 and 2013 is somewhat surprising. As one of the people above said “…how prevalent is the use of the Leica…” It is possible that everyone bought the same system several years ago. We do alot of microscopy in our lab and the technology changes all the time and there are alot of combinations possible. It is sort of surprising that there is an identical description of the microscopy resources in two or three different documents. It is possible that all systems are identical and that there is no issue.

          • I agree. But I bet that there is no way the exact equipment in two different labs 8 years apart on different sides of the planet have the exact same equipment. Cut and paste the parts that you actually copied (with a reference). Don’t cut and paste the equipment list unless you really did have the exact same stuff.

  9. More inappropriately reused image in two papers from Vacanti’s lab was found.

    H&E image for “TET” in Fig.2b of Anat Rec article (2014 Jan;297(1):44-50. ) is similar to H&E image in Fig.5a of another article, FASEB J. 2003 May;17(8):823-8.

    These two images were gotten in methods different from each other.

    Anat Rec (Hoboken). 2014 Jan;297(1):44-50. doi: 10.1002/ar.22799. Epub 2013 Dec 2.
    Tissue engineering in the trachea.
    Kojima K, Vacanti CA.

    FASEB J. 2003 May;17(8):823-8.
    A composite tissue-engineered trachea using sheep nasal chondrocyte and epithelial cells.
    Kojima K, Bonassar LJ, Roy AK, Mizuno H, Cortiella J, Vacanti CA.

    • How can you even find a picture from 2003 and use it in a 2014 publication? Wow. #GoodPictureManagement

  10. Paul one question Can anyone outside the authors make STAP cells?

    And is there a summary since I do not follow this daily?

    By the way you are doing a great job on the subject, STAP

    Re ACTC: LONDON today had a SMD patient give a testimonial in private talk to eye surgeons . Check iCell for detail……

  11. I don’t care about the methods section text copying if the papers share some authorship. There are lots of times when it’s easier to copy methods text than to refer to an earlier one and give slight changes.

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