Obokata Can’t Reproduce STAP Cells

Obokata press conference

Signaling a nightmare ending to what was originally a fairy tale scientific story, the Japanese press (e.g. here) are reporting that Haruko Obokata has herself been unable to make STAP cells again as part of a RIKEN team testing STAP under watchful supervision.

In advance of a scheduled RIKEN press conference tomorrow, newspapers including Asahi Shimbun are reporting now that RIKEN will announce STAP was not replicated even with the involvement of Obokata.

Earlier this year RIKEN had said their internal investigation had found Obokata committed misconduct in her STAP research published in January as two papers in Nature that were later retracted.

Only three months ago, senior STAP paper author Charles Vacanti and collaborating scientist Koji Kojima of Brigham and Women’s Hospital reaffirmed their belief in STAP and posted a new STAP protocol on-line. They said STAP was a phenomenon in which “we have absolute confidence” and stressed the importance of adding ATP into the mix to make STAP, which had not been previously emphasized. It’s unknown if Obokata’s STAP replication efforts included trying the newer Vacanti protocol with ATP.

It’s unclear at this time what this somewhat final failed replication effort will mean for the STAP authors.

51 thoughts on “Obokata Can’t Reproduce STAP Cells


  1. Of course she could not repeat the results. She was under tremendous stress and was video taped from her entering the lab till she left. I doubt any one would perform normally under these humiliating and hostile circumstance. You Westerners have successfully mob executed a promising young Japanese scientist. Congratulations. But time will tell that Miss Obokata is right and STAP cells do exist.


    • all the experiments i’ve done in my doctoral work can be repeated, either by me or by others, videotaped or not. that is the essence of doing useful/meaningful science…


    • This is the most ridiculous comment I’ve seen and I can only assume that you just create sockpuppet. I can tell straight to you that the Japanese media is the one pushing this scandal, not the ‘Westerners’ who only report what happen.

      Also videotape or not if it’s something I publish, like any real scientist, I am confident that I can repeat it again as many times as it takes, or let other trained people to repeat it.


      • As a resident of Japan, I can confirm that the local Japanese media has been pushing this story since holes began to appear early this year.


    • In reality, there is absolutely no reason to believe that STAP cells exist. The way that science actually works is that new ideas, even (or especially) those published in high-impact journals such as Nature, are not accepted as fact until they are independently replicated. This is why Dr. Yamanaka worked so hard before publishing to make sure that iPS cells are reproducible and why they they have subsequently been reproduced by thousands of researchers around the world; this was a real discovery.

      In contrast, Obokata and Vacanti’s STAP work has not been replicated by a single lab anywhere in the world, even in the top labs that have far more experience with stem cells than Obokata or Vacanti. Even Obokata’s own co-authors in Japan could not replicate her findings. Even the original published findings have been thoroughly discredited and established as fake. Of course she failed in replication efforts because there was nothing to replicate in the first place. There is absolutely no reason to believe that STAP cells exist. Simply saying “STAP細胞はあります” is like saying that 2 + 2 = 5; it is meaningless because there is no evidence.

      Obokata published fake data and then refused to take responsibility for it, and she has still has not publicly accepted how wrong her actions were. This is an insult to the field. Because of this, she has zero credibility. When someone who has demonstrated a lack of integrity is given the chance to replicate findings, it is obviously necessary to do it under close and careful supervision (e.g., videotape) for the new experiments to have any meaning. Close monitoring is especially required for someone who is supposed to be an independent scientist but clearly has not been properly trained in how to do research to the extent that she claims that she did not even know what she was doing was wrong. So let’s be clear: any “humiliating” and “hostile circumstance” that she has encountered, she has brought upon herself.

      As for “performing normally” under hostile circumstances, how exactly would increased scrutiny make her fail if STAP cells really exist? She has supposedly made them hundreds of times. Indeed, this is supposed to be an “easy” way to make stem cells; that was a big part of the attraction when the papers were first published. If they are so easy to make and she has made them hundreds of times over the past 6 years, then how would being videotaped suddenly make it completely impossible to make STAP cells? The best explanation is that now that she is actually supervised and prevented from doing anything dishonest, it is no longer possible to make STAP cells, i.e., the original findings were fabricated. About stress: principal investigators around the world are under intense stress. That is part of the job. This is why someone who seeks to be an independent researcher has to be able to handle stress; if they cannot handle stress, they should stick to protected junior positions. Also, everyone knows that findings in high-impact journals are subjected to much more intense scrutiny. This is why someone who seeks fame by publishing findings in a high-impact journal should be prepared for the scrutiny that comes along with it and should understand (and accept) the consequences for misconduct.

      Regarding “you Westerners,” this was a much, much bigger story in Japan than anywhere in the West, during both the rise and the downfall. The Japanese media are responsible first for taking an unsubstantiated discovery of questionable clinical impact (STAP) and greatly exaggerating its value, and then turning around and hounding Obokata when the fake data and misconduct came to light. Also note that the data fabrication was initially pointed out by indignant Japanese researchers, and rightfully so, because this episode has embarrassed research in Japan. Thus, if there was any “mob execution,” it was performed by Japanese, not “Westerners,” and furthermore it was justified.

      Finally, “promising young researcher” seems to be an inappropriate title for someone who apparently made it all the way through a PhD and postdoc to an independent position without even learning about research integrity, lack of reproducible findings aside.

      Similar to Matt above, all the major findings of my doctoral and postdoctoral work have been replicated by others, too. That is indeed the essence of doing useful/meaningful science and why only those who do not understand science (and not those actually working in the field) will defend Obokata.


      • I think Shinsakan (which means “examining officer” in Japanese) said all that needs to be said, and I don’t have much to add to his/her comments except to note that Mlle Obokata has a significant number of cult followers in Japan who are convinced that she is some kind of a martyr hounded down by hostile forces (e.g. scientific community, media, anyone who’s not crazy or deluded…you name it). Trying to engage with them is as pointless as (if not more so than) reasoning with flat-earthers.


        • Thank you, Jun Tak. I chose the pseudonym “shinsakan” because it is my current job description and because I used to be a researcher in Japan. I agree with you, but I still think that it is important to engage such people using reasoning and logic so that at least a counterpoint exists every time they try to press the issue.


    • Dear Seiho,
      I think that Paul has been very fair in his treatment of this issue. He has strenuously questioned the science but he has been gracious towards the scientists.

      There has been no “mob execution” at this blog site.


    • 7.5/10 – almost lol’d; better than expected trolling on a science blog. Would probably read “Seiho’s” comment again.


    • Nice to see you here, Miss Obokata! Please remember next time to submit your work to PlosOne in stead of Nature if you stay in science.


  2. As a part of the press conference, the protocol was explained and it was reported that the teams tried both with and without ATP.


  3. The new on the resignation of Obokata Haruko yesterday was not what I expected but then for her own good, I thought she did the right thing. Leaving a hostile working environment is the best for her at this juncture. I didn’t know that her experiment to recreate STAP stem cell was monitored by camera, a form of mental torture. Riken treated Obokata like a criminal in a high security prison. No scientists in that kind of environment could think or perform effectively. I hope Obokata recover from unfortunate incident and prove her point in the future under different circumstances.


    • Do you really think that she resigned of her own volition? Odds are that she was “asked” to resign because she has deeply embarrassed RIKEN and research in Japan. Having her leave is the only way that RIKEN can start to re-establish credibility. See comments in response to Fugunaga above. Any “hostile working environment” Obokata had, she brought on herself first by showing that her work could not be trusted. Of course she was treated with mistrust; she committed fraud and misconduct! If someone robs your house, would you let them visit again without having a camera on? If she had really created STAP cells “hundreds of times” so easily before, by simply following her own established protocol she should have been able to make them again, regardless of cameras or “mental torture.” Scientists do not need to be in the “right mood” or “feeling right” to obtain results when working from an established protocol. That is the whole point of having a protocol. Obokata was given plenty of time and plenty of resources. I have not heard of any other case where someone was given a second chance like that after committing fraud when the findings have already been shown to not be reproducible by everyone else. How is it possible to suddenly fail in the presence of cameras when it was supposedly so easy before? The only explanation is that once she was actually supervised and prevented from doing anything dishonest, it was no longer possible to make STAP cells, i.e., the original findings were fabricated. Face it, STAP cells do not exist. STAP細胞はありません。 What Obokata did was far worse than an “unfortunate incident” and she has to first learn about research integrity and how to actually do research before she can “recover,” if she can indeed “recover.” Hwang was able to “recover” and establish a lucrative dog cloning business because he already had a track record and had done some real science before his fraud. Obokata committed serious fraud at basically her first time at bat; which is not a great start for a career.


      • Probably she was given a second chance because she quickly hired a lawer at the early stage. A very rare occurrence among Japanese academics. Ripken had to be extremely cautious not to be sued.


        • Agree, especially given that they had apparently been sued before over taking action against dishonest researchers. Plus, as has been noted here, Obokata has built a cult following among some members of the lay public of Japan; if RIKEN summarily dismissed her or took action against her without letting her prove that she could not make STAP cells, their PR problem would have been even worse. This way, by letting her “resign” after failure, they make themselves out to be the good guys. Of course, I can think of a lot of people who could have put the funds wasted on her “second chance” to good use actually discovering something…


          • Shinkasan: You say that having her leave is the only way that RIKEN can start to re-establish credibility. This may be true for the Japanese public, but I’m not sure this is a good way to (re-)establish credibility in the international scientific community. The only way to establish credibility as a scientific institute is to immediately fire people found guilty in scientific misconduct… Once a scientific institute gives “credibility” among the public higher priority than credibility among scientists, there’s really no turning back.


    • I think Waseda University made a determination a few months ago to the effect that: 1) her thesis, as it is, is quite deficient in many respects and do not make a cut as a PhD paper, 2) but as it was only a draft that had been submitted in error – her claim, 3) a finished product would be considered if it would be resubmitted in due course of time. Honest, I’m not making this up. You can check it up elsewhere.


      • On this issue, I think, at this juncture whether her doctorate is revoked or not is, ahem, an academic question. No-one thinks that she is a real PhD and her failings (or even criminal intent, as some have alleged) have been widely known. Even if she miraculously retains her PhD, no self-respecting university or research
        institution would consider hiring her even as a lab help.


  4. We all can share the blame for this mess. The biomedical scientific community puts so much emphasis on a big Cell Science Nature paper for its young scientists to get ahead, that we have made rewards for tweaking the data, far outweigh the consequences. For every Obokata, there are hundreds that get away with it. While it is tragic someone had to lose his life over this situation, I think it was a necessary wake up call to the scientific community.


    • I have a problem with the statement that we are all to blame. My integrity is my own, no one elses. Just like you, I want to publish in high impact papers. Who wouldn’t? At the same time, I suspect that you (nor myself) would intentionally falsify data in order to achieve that goal. We will never know what went on in Obokata’s mind leading up to her “findings”, submission, and eventual publication of her fabricated data. When she made the conscious decision to lie and start this fall down the rabbit hole, no one will ever know. But we all are confident that it happened at some point and as a stem cell biologist, I don’t feel like I am to blame for that. Blame her, blame her mentors for not prioritizing scientific integrity (I am looking at you Vacanti), blame the lack of funding (making it all the more necessary to publish high impact papers in order to get ahead), and blame Nature for a questionable (at best) review of the two retreated papers. There is a lot of blame to go around, but I don’t think it is fair to just carpet bomb the entire field because of this high profile case.

      What I do think we as a community can do is rethink where we publish. To me it is disgusting that Nature did not handle the review process with the same vigor as it usually does for the “rest of us.” Its eyes got bigger than its stomach and the publishing of the Obokata studies — in my opinion — ultimately, cost somebody their life. When this all happened, I was hoping I would see PIs on the floor, Department, and in general, actively keep their papers away from Nature, out of principle. Submit to the other high impact journals; its not like Nature is the ONLY high impact journal out there. I hoped that Nature would be punished the only way possible, by not getting submissions, citations, and ultimately, a dropping of their precious impact factor. But instead, they have taken no responsibility for their role in this mess, and we have done nothing to punish them for it. I had the opportunity to recently to speak to and ask a senior editor at Nature about this fiasco and was dumbfounded when there wasn’t an ounce of responsibility taken. All I got was defensiveness and an assurance that the papers were reviewed thoroughly. I mention the leaked reviews to which she replied “well you didn’t see the second reviews so you do not know what happened after that, do you?” When asked if Nature would then make those second reviews public, she said no. It wouldn’t be appropriate. This is what makes me so angry and this is what I wish we as a community would take seriously. Because this is something that we can affect, but we don’t. And Nature gets away with it, scot free.


    • Michelle: “For every Obokata, there are hundreds that get away with it.” — Is there a “big Cell Science” paper in every issue of Nature? — If yes, Nature gives Cell Science way too much attention compared with other sciences.

      Aaron: An editor of Physical Review Letters once shared with me his opinion of Nature and all the Nature xyz journals… He made the point that Nature is a weekly magazine, published by a profit-making company, sold at newsstands. Nature makes profit by selling their magazines, and they don’t really have a commitment to “advance science”. The setup is quite different to e.g. Science, PNAS, Physical Review, and many other journals published by scientific non-profit organizations… Nature is a for-profit money-making-machine — this may or may not affect their editorial practices, but we can’t really know, because they’re not too open about their editorial practices.


  5. If Dr. Obokata were Japanese male under these circumstances, she would be expected to do the honorable thing kind of like the old British public school thing. The whole story is such a pity.


  6. Her contract was to expire in March. No way to be renewed under current mess, even in case of positive results, so her resignation was set in motion even before the conference was held. In fact, there were comments, even by scientists, on morning TV programs yesterday calling her to quit only after she apologized and say she had omitted a mistake/lie (that was before the conference was held – so it is an example for her fate).
    As to her PhD thesis, I cannot find it know but the last thing I read in the papers here was that Waseda asked her to resubmit her thesis by some time next year, I forgot when exactly, so the university flip flopped after at first claiming that it would not review it since the dissertation is just a part of the degree’s requirements. No mention though about all 11 dissertations from the same lab/faculty exposed by Junichi Jugen for their plagiarism. I think her PHD would be rescinded regardless of her efforts. You would always find some mistake to justify such a decision.
    She has committed grave mistakes but oversight by her supervisors and translate/copy/paste culture in the Japanese graduate schools are much more severe issues that need to be addressed.


    • I think it is pointless to interview Obokata, because no one would believe the story coming out of that mouth. She has lost her credibility.


      • Actually looks more to me like the Yamanaka graph was used as inspiration, as in “this is what it took to publish iPS in Cell; let’s do the same thing-” the axes, legend, and data point markers are basically the same. The actual data points appear to be a bit different. Of course, given Obokota’s penchant for fabrication and lack of lab notes, rather than being directly copied, who is to say that the data points weren’t simply made up with the Yamanaka graph as the template for “what it should look like?”


  7. First, I’m not a scientist and my descriptions/terminology may be incorrect, but …

    I haven’t been following this closely but over the past few months have wondered if someone else in the lab might have switched samples or mice – to cause trouble (professional feud? old boyfriend?) or for whatever reason.

    If I understand the situation correctly, it seems that as of now no one knows how cells from different mice ended up where they did…. No one is able to say how Obokata did that. Maybe some other, unsuspected person did it?

    I *vaguely* recall reading many months ago about someone either blogging or tweeting, claiming they worked in the lab, and making rather odd, off-handed comments to the effect that STAP cells could be produced easily, but that they themselves produced them using their own special technique – not the one reported in the Nature paper. Is it too far out there to think that this person was “producing” these cells by taking them from another source?

    Just wanted to throw this out there. Has this question ever been considered?


    • It’s hard to believe that someone else could have switched the cells; the logistics would be pretty difficult for someone other than her, and the effect of the sabotage would be too indirect (make her appear to succeed and then try to pull the rug out from under her? It would be easier and more logical for a potential saboteur to just directly make her fail). Also, if someone else had switched cells that she had successfully generated on “hundreds” of occasions, does that mean that they made the switch hundreds of times? If not, and if she had actually created the cells before but someone else had just switched them for the mouse study, then regardless of the switch, she should have still been able to generate them in the failed replication experiments. Given that Obokata, as a grad student/postdoc/junior investigator, likely performed all of the experiments herself, given that she already showed through her statements that she does not understand research integrity, and especially given that the switched cells were not the only problem with the papers or even the misconduct that was called out by the investigation that resulted in the papers being retracted (i.e., the switched cells were part of a pattern and not an isolated problem), I personally think it unlikely that someone else did it. Plus, the other people I believe that you are referring to are Obokata’s supervisor/mentor at BWH who later came out with the “ATP” protocol and also an unnamed lab technician supposedly from that lab who had made a blog or tweet post; they both said that the cells could be easily produced. If the switched cells originated from RIKEN, where the mouse study was performed (I am not sure if the BWH lab works with ES cells; to my knowledge, they have not published any papers using ES cells before this), then the BWH people who claimed that the cells could be produced easily could not have made the switch.


        • Actually, this is a further response to Shinsakan, though prompted by Jun Tak’s comment. (I don’t understand the “reply” system.)

          My understanding is that it would have been hard for *anyone* to switch the cells, though I have no reason not to believe your claim that it would have been easier for her than for anyone else.

          In regard to the idea that it would be easier to just “directly make her fail” – I don’t follow. Failing to produce STAP cells would just mean that she would continue doing her job as a researcher, wouldn’t it? No harm, no foul.

          Another way to put it: How would it hurt her to ensure that she did not produce something that doesn’t exist?


          • It would have been relatively easy for her to switch the cells if she was the one actually culturing them and supplying them for the experiments or performing the experiments. It would have been much harder for someone not playing such a role to do that. In particular, for someone not performing the cell cultures and/or the experiments (i.e., not Obokata) to somehow obtain ES cells, replace STAP cells with ES cells (in a tissue culture hood using sterile technique without anyone asking what they are doing because only Obokata would be expected to be doing this) and then label the culture dishes the exact same way that Obokata did such that she would not guess that they were switched (we use magic marker to write on tissue culture plates in our own handwriting)…seems very far-fetched. I can’t even think of how one would go about doing it.

            Additionally, remember that it was not even the lack of reproducibility/cell switching that actually triggered the scandal or retractions. Lack of reproducibility in and of itself is not a career-ender. Indeed, (unfortunately) many papers in high-impact journals are not reproducible. What initially triggered the scandal was the finding of image duplication/manipulation. Therefore, for the efforts of our unknown saboteur to be successful, he/she would have also have had to manipulate the gel images for the submitted paper, make up the data for two of the figures, copy non-STAP figures from Obokata’s PhD thesis and try to pass them off as STAP cells, etc. How would it be possible for someone else to switch the cells and then also do all of that data manipulation (and not have it noticed by Obokata, the first author of the study)? Recall that the RIKEN investigating committee did squarely lay the blame for the data manipulation/fabrication (which triggered the investigation and retractions) on Obokata, which is why she was found guilty of research misconduct.

            On top of all of that, the saboteur would then also have had to expect that the paper would be accepted to a high-impact journal (it almost wasn’t), that the findings would be heavily publicized by the media and promoted by RIKEN, that Obokata was not keeping good lab notes and documentation of her work, that a scandal would result, etc.

            It just doesn’t seem possible; too many if’s. A much more parsimonious explanation to me would be that for whatever reason (pressure to produce, seeking fame, seeking career advancement), she felt the need to convince everyone that STAP cells exist even though they don’t.

            Also, regarding “directly make her fail,” I get your point, but I don’t really think of it as no harm, no foul. Career-wise, yes, failing to produce STAP cells could be recovered from, even though Obokota was brought to BWH specifically to work on this project. However, failing to produce anything at all would be another story. If you can’t produce anything at all, you don’t publish, and as a researcher, if you don’t publish, you are done. Being a researcher (especially a junior investigator) isn’t like a regular 9-5 job with a semblance of job security. If you don’t produce, your career stops. Directly derailing someone by sabotaging their study such that they could not obtain publishable results in time (remember that Obokata was on a temporary postdoctoral appointment when she initially worked on STAP) would have immediate negative consequences with certain impact. Such acts are extreme, but let me say that in highly competitive institutions, acts of petty sabotage are not unheard of.

            It just seems to me that there would be other, more direct ways to damage someone’s research career than to pull off the seemingly impossible by infiltrating their study at multiple unrelated steps to generate false positive data and then passively hoping that the false positive data would lead to their downfall, especially when there appears to be a much simpler explanation for what happened.


            • Thank you for taking the time to provide the details and insights of an insider to an outsider. Very helpful, as well as fascinating.


              • Thank you for raising such interesting questions and for patiently reading with an open mind. It was fun to talk through it. I left bench research to work in intellectual property and consulting a couple of years ago, so I don’t know if I can really be called an insider anymore, but I will always remember my life in the lab! 🙂


      • Thank you for your insightful and thoughtful response. It seems RIKEN in its latest report is leaving aside the question of who might have “contaminated” the stem cells with cells from other sources and is focusing on the fabricated images.

        Actually, their conclusions in regard to the images seem quite mild toward Obokata, and seem to blame the bigwigs at RIKEN who signed off on her research.

        And come to think of it, I find it easy to believe that Obokata, as a Japanese researcher educated in a “sensei knows best” culture, and whose work has previously been approved of – even when it shouldn’t have been, as in the case of her PhD thesis – was under the impression that her shoddy/dishonest work was actually “by the book” – that is, “the way my senseis approve of.”

        I sort of suspect that there are more than a few scientists in Japan who see scientific papers as just formulaic presentations that are part of their job, rather than as accurate representations of actual procedures and data.

        But it is hard to believe anyone could be naive enough to extend all of that to “I can just say I did this even though I didn’t do it *at all*, because it superficially looks good, and fits into the standard image of what a researcher should do.”

        The alternatives – that Obokata is a lying sociopath, or that she was duped by someone into believing that she did produce so-called STAP cells – are equally hard to believe. It’s all a bit mind-boggling.


  8. RIKEN’s response is actually much harsher towards Obokata than towards the RIKEN senior staff. She was the only one found guilty of research misconduct. Even though none of the RIKEN senior staff was her direct supervisor when STAP was “discovered” or submitted for publication and even though at RIKEN she was a principal investigator and supposedly independent, the RIKEN staff were still chastised for not supervising her sufficiently. However, none of them was actually found guilty of misconduct. Obokata was criticized much more severely by RIKEN, rightfully so, and she no longer has a job. That does not seem mild to me, although perhaps it is too mild given the circumstances. Really, though, I think that the blame to be borne by the RIKEN senior staff is for hiring an unqualified principal investigator in the first place (perhaps a political consideration?) rather than for expecting that the principal investigator would do her job.

    Also, regarding who signed off on the work, remember that the institutional affiliation of the main STAP paper was not RIKEN and the person primarily signing off on that work is American.

    I agree that Obokota appears to have received deficient training, as she did not learn the meaning of research integrity and her statements suggest that she indeed thought that plagiarism and quite possibly data manipulation/fabrication are “by the book.”

    However, I think that this is more related to her particular graduate school environment and cannot be used to make generalizations about Japan or Japanese researchers. Indeed, having a “sensei knows best” culture does not necessarily mean that students there are sheep who actually believe so, and not all labs even have such a culture. When I was a researcher in Japan, the students in my lab were bright and thought for themselves, and both the investigators and students I knew and worked with had at least as much integrity as anyone I know here in the US.

    I also disagree with the generalization that Japanese researchers do not view papers as accurate representations of methods and data. The Japanese researchers I know meticulously perform experiments and collect more data than necessary for publication to make sure they have it right. They view papers as a way to communicate new technology that actually works with the goal of saving real patients, and not merely as tools to secure grant money.

    Of course, conditions are not perfect there, but research conditions are not perfect anywhere and indeed we see reports of misconduct from around the world. I believe that the difference in this case was not it being Japan but rather the extent to which the media fanned the flames and how Obokata was apparently used as a political tool by RIKEN and the government.

    It may be hard to believe that someone could be naive enough to think “I can just say I did this even though I didn’t do it *at all*” but it actually happens more often than you think, and not only in science. For example, how often do we hear about high-profile people lying about having been in the military or having certain academic credentials to advance their career? Such lies are so easy to verify, and yet people still tell them. Regarding data manipulation/duplication/fabrication in research, as a peer reviewer, I have even caught people doing it, and I have also seen it at institutions I have worked at. The pressure to publish and to succeed is intense. Most of the time, such falsification occurs in low-impact journals and the “discoveries” are not relentlessly and prematurely exaggerated by the media or promoted by the institution, so nobody cares, there is minimal scrutiny, and even if the findings cannot be replicated, the study is basically forgotten, as researchers usually take fantastic claims with a grain of salt, anyway. I imagine that Obokota probably thought that she could get away with doing what so many others get away with, but she didn’t realize that by publishing in Nature with world-renowned co-authors, she was moving to a completely different stage with a media frenzy that resulted in much deeper scrutiny that of course led to the unraveling of the lies.

    Perhaps at some level she really deluded herself into thinking that she had made STAP cells, and then justified all of the subsequent fabrication and falsification by thinking that it was necessary to get the point across and tell a better story, and as long as the core concept was valid, everything would be o.k. Of course, in reality, for the core concept to be valid, evidence must exist, and not the other way around (this is the fundamental difference between science and faith, but that is another discussion). Perhaps when the time came to perform the validation studies, she had already entered into the collaboration with the famous researchers at RIKEN and been offered a position there (chance of a lifetime) and felt like she had gone too far to turn back…in my mind, that would set the stage for swapping the cells. It’s like the old adage “in for a penny, in for a pound.” I would love to know what she was really thinking.


    • Wow, superb comment. Thanks so much. As an outsider to scientific culture, I just couldn’t get my head around the idea that someone could just make up such a spectacular lie – not just a spectacular lie, but one that could easily be found out. Perhaps the seed of my speculation that someone else might have tried to dupe her.

      You make the situation quite understandable, to the extent it can be understood without “inside information” from Obokata. I too “would love to know what she was really thinking.”


    • Shinsakan wrote: “I would love to know what she was really thinking.”

      As someone who could be described as an Obokata supporter, though not a STAP supporter (because it is not a real scientific phenomena), perhaps I can share a few thoughts:

      There is every indication to me that Obokata’s motivation was praise and approval seeking from her superiors at RIKEN and, earlier, elsewhere.

      I suspect that publishing in a very high ISI ranked journal was primarily important to her because it was important to her superiors, that Obokata’s world and thinking was very local, confined to those in her immediate environment.

      I think it is also quite likely that originally she saw something (autofluorescence?), misunderstood it, and then when she outlined her idea(s) about the result to e.g. Vacanti perhaps she was provided a far out and extremely optimistic scenario. What might one then do if they are immature and lack confidence? They take shortcuts to make this scenario come to life.

      (Hypothetical scenario):

      Obokata: This new result X confirms the hypothesis!
      Superior: Brilliant! Wonderful work Obokata. Let’s try Y?

      A short while later Y gives inconclusive or negative results, so some sort of gray-to-black adjustment is made…

      Obokata: This new result Y confirms the hypothesis!
      Superior: Wonderful, wonderful! Please keep going! You are one of the top postdoctoral researchers I’ve ever hired, it is so fortunate that you are here!

      At this point Obokata goes home every day with a warm feeling of being accepted, special, and necessary in the eyes of her superiors. “They care about me, I am important here.” she thinks. And it is a very local and restricted kind of thinking where the larger scientific world is out of sight and mind.

      It then becomes easier to lie, and the required manipulations easier to perform. Why? Because she is now cared for and respected by her superiors and they could never turn on her. They will protect her if others from outside question her work or attack her.

      Perhaps she is also thinking: “*They* believe in me, and in STAP, so that means STAP can work and is a true result.”

      From this I can understand to some extent the sloppiness of her fabrications, and earlier rationalizations that led to alleged plagiarism.

      Now to respond to Jun Tak, who wrote:

      “Obokata has a significant number of cult followers in Japan who are convinced that she is some kind of a martyr hounded down by hostile forces (e.g. scientific community, media, anyone who’s not crazy or deluded…you name it). Trying to engage with them is as pointless as (if not more so than) reasoning with flat-earthers.”

      Isn’t it obvious why she elicits a protective response from at least some individuals? She is immature and in very serious trouble. She will be recognized now anywhere in Japan by face, and identified quickly at any job – even as an office lady or temp far away from her home. She will suffer enormously for her actions, as will her family, and she has been cast out by the same superiors she so desperately sought approval and acceptance from.

      The irony is that Obokata’s harshest critics are the ones (typically in the West I think) who hold her to the same standards of conduct and thinking as an adult scientist and colleague.

      Maybe a lesson I draw is that it is important to identify early on students like Obokata and to make an effort to connect hard and rigorous work, rather than simply successful results, with praise and approval. It is also extremely important not to criticize failure with such a person, and to outline reasonable expectations for hypothetical scenarios. On the less positive side, one should exercise great care if a student is regularly bringing into existence your imagined worlds.

      Finally, I feel very strongly that an effort should be made by the scientific community to allow Obokata to recover from this and find respectable work over the coming years. STAP is finished, the damage is done. Please allow her live, and allow her find a new place where she can be accepted.


      • This is an interesting and thoughtful comment. But I am not sure about the last part. While I sympathize for Obokata’s plight, I can’t see how she could ever be reintegrated into biology, or any job where she was working with cells or with data, on account of her history. People would not trust her.

        She could perhaps become an editorial assistant at a scientific publisher, or a copywriter. She could do that work anonymously and over the internet, there would be no scope for misconduct, and she’d be contributing to science.


  9. @Neuro_Skeptic

    Neuroskeptic wrote: “But I am not sure about the last part. While I sympathize for Obokata’s plight, I can’t see how she could ever be reintegrated into biology, or any job where she was working with cells or with data, on account of her history. People would not trust her.”

    I am sorry, I made a mistake with my writing.

    I did not mean that the scientific community should make an effort to re-accept Obokata after some period of time. There is no manner in which I could imagine a healthy environment in such a case. I meant that if she obtains a job outside of science, my hope is that she is left alone.

    A fear comes from articles like this:

    http://retractionwatch.com/2014/10/03/curtain-up-on-second-act-for-dutch-fraudster-stapel-college-teacher/

    I do not see a problem with this blog posting because, in my opinion, Stapel was a very senior and very competent person who took advantage of younger students and colleagues, and did extraordinary damage to these people. There is a very serious reason for concern that he benefits from his actions.

    However, Obokata is a very different case (in my opinion). I am worried that follow-up articles like this may appear, and cause potential future employers outside of science to see her as an even greater liability and source of negative news than she might already be. My comment that: “…an effort should be made by the scientific community to allow Obokata to recover from this and find respectable work over the coming years…” was intended to convey the hope that scientific community can allow her to recover from perceptions that she is a threat and a liability outside of science.

    —-

    One more thing concerning the final RIKEN report:

    http://www.riken.jp/en/pr/topics/2015/20150126_2/

    Reading through the entire very sad document, I find it impossible that, were I in Wakayama or Sasai’s position, I would not be able to tell that there was something terribly wrong. Imagine Obokata is a native English speaker. Do you think you could not have deduced there was something seriously wrong after having a 30 minute or so conversation with Obokata about the technical details of her research?

    I cannot find a photo of it, but NHK showed some images of her laboratory notebook on television some time ago. It is impossible for me to believe that Sasai and Wakayama could have been ignorant of there being at the very least a training deficiency.

    So I do agree with the more serious Obokata supporters that, despite her inexcusable actions, she was a victim. Though I believe her to be a victim of inexcusably terrible mentoring by senior colleagues rather than some Japanese institutional conspiracy.

Comments are closed.