Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Co-author of controversial acid STAP stem cell papers in Nature requests retraction: report

with 18 comments

nature 2-27-14A co-author of two papers claiming to have shown how to create stem cells simply and easily has requested their retraction, the Wall Street Journal is reporting:

Teruhiko Wakayama of Yamanashi University in Japan, a co-author of both papers published in Nature, said he has asked the lead author of the papers, Haruko Obokata, to retract them.

“There is no more credibility when there are such crucial mistakes,” he said in an email to The Wall Street Journal. He didn’t elaborate on what the mistakes were.

Nature told the WSJ that it was still investigating the matter. As Nature‘s news section reported last month, lead author

…biologist Haruko Obokata, who is based at the institution…shot to fame as the lead author of two papers1, 2 published in Nature last month that demonstrated a way to reprogram mature mouse cells into an embryonic state by simply applying stress, such as exposure to acid conditions or physical pressure on cell membranes.

But the studies, published online on January 29, soon came under fire. Paul Knoepfler has had a number of detailed posts on the matter, as has PubPeer.

The controversy is the latest for the field of stem cells, both embryonic and adult. Among other cases:

  • Last month, the University of Dusseldorf found evidence of misconduct in work by a scientist who claimed that bone marrow-derived stem cells could repair diseased hearts.
  • A retraction at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Syracuse last year raised similar questions.
  • And of course, the case of Woo-Suk Hwang has been back in the news.
Comments
  • KK March 10, 2014 at 11:06 am

    This is interesting. I commented on pubpeer that the none of the 104 comments were from the corresponding authors. Now I see this. hope it is not because of my comment.

    • Boo Yah April 14, 2014 at 8:27 am

      Probably not. I live and work in Japan. For better or worse, most Japanese do not seek out and read media in languages other than Japanese.

  • exchemist March 10, 2014 at 1:48 pm

    Huge amount of questionable studies in stem cell work. Can someone explain the trend?

    Was the public oversold on how it was going to cure their elderly relatives? Did this impact scientists themselves, funding agencies, journals? Even, perhaps a desire to want to show the importance of stem cells given the political debate on sources of them, etc.?

    There was also a lot of discussion on how US research would be harmed and fall behind because of lack of access to stem cells. Has that occurred?

    • QAQ March 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm

      >> Huge amount of questionable studies in stem cell work. Can someone explain the trend?

      See below.

      >> Was the public oversold on how it was going to cure their elderly relatives? Did this impact scientists themselves, funding agencies, journals? Even, perhaps a desire to want to show the importance of stem cells given the political debate on sources of them, etc.?

      Yes. Yes. Yes.

      >>There was also a lot of discussion on how US research would be harmed and fall behind because of lack of access to stem cells. Has that occurred?

      No, but there has been pretty decent access.

      The quintessential problem with science is that it requires resources. Resources require allocation. Allocation of resources requires an estimate of the benefit. Yet the prediction of benefit from the design of an experiment is next to impossible. With that said, I think that this case is showing exactly how science should work. High profile journal publishes something with potentially high scientific value. Rather than accepting this as reality, scientists attempt to figure out what’s really going on. Eventually a consensus will be reached.

      • JATdS March 10, 2014 at 3:46 pm

        I gave a heads up about this story on March 3 at RW (http://retractionwatch.com/2014/02/27/nature-paper-retracted-following-multiple-failures-to-reproduce-results/#comments) after carefully analyzing the Japanese media, and made a few contacts in Japan which may have snowballed within a week. My greatest concern was that misconduct would be associated with Riken, and now this fear has been confirmed. The Japanese science community is now under pressure to conduct wall-to-wall examination of the publishing literature by Japanese scientists, in particular now by researchers in Riken, a privately funded, mega research center of ginormous political influence. So far, I feel that Japanese researchers have been able to successfully stifle criticism and that misconduct is generally not associated with Japanese research. My experience of over 15 years indicates otherwise, with inappropriate authorship, domineering PI’s, and manipulated data. My criticisms have been stifled, swept under the rug and trampled on, even those sent to the Ministry of Education (MEXT) using my actual professional name, i.e., without assuming any anonymous pseudonym. My peers have ridiculed my critique of the misconduct, and called it random acts of error, and the senior status quo who are guilty of acts such as duplication, or plagiarism, continue to operate, legally, with a good salary, good position, good research grants, travel funds and other expenses paid, when there is clearly an ethical black mark that can be proved. Yet, it is these “big shots” that are protected. It is time to pull the rug out from under their feet. We will get beaten and trodden on while uncovering the truth, but Japan cannot continue on its current path of manipulated disguise. NOTE: this has absolutely nothing to do with the wonderful nature of so many Japanese. It is a purely science-related critique.

        • KK March 10, 2014 at 7:13 pm

          agree somewhat with JATdS – authorship issue is a major one, i feel as I had a similar experience.

        • Erik March 10, 2014 at 10:18 pm

          That you say that RIKEN is “privately funded”, when in fact almost the entire budget comes from the Japanese government, calls the other insights you provide about the state of Japanese science into question, to say the least.

          • JATdS March 11, 2014 at 4:24 am

            Apologies for that loose funding characterization. Not all funding is from the Government, but most is: http://www.riken.jp/en/about/facts/. And many research institutes that were previously government funded are now becoming semi-autonomous and are having to seek private funding to survive. The bottom line is, will the entire Riken-derved literature be scrutinized in more detail now?

          • OIJ March 11, 2014 at 10:12 pm

            I agree with this. The insights smell like sour grapes.

            But to clarify a bit, Riken is a semi-independent lab in Japan. Most of its funding is public but it isn’t associated with the government per se. Instead, it is supposed to be a feeder of new technologies that can be converted into new companies. The closest American parallel is Bell Labs, which was a stand-alone entity funded by the telephone companies to feed them new technologies (although it was not publicly funded).

            As for culture, Japanese culture is more bureaucratic and more top-down than Western labs, but there’s nothing unique to Japan about domineering bosses, favoritism, stifling criticism, and manipulating data (as can be seen on a variety of entries on this fantastic blog). I don’t like the blame assigned to Japan as a whole over this mess. Obokata et al seem to have done some sloppy and possibly underhanded work to come to exaggerated conclusions. That’s on them, not all of Japanese science.

  • Eamon March 11, 2014 at 7:17 pm

    The problem is that in Japanese society, how society sees you – Face – is the most important thing. In different situations from academia I have seen brazen denial of embarassing occurences in order to save face, and the same thing must be operating in academia.

  • Neuroskeptic (@Neuro_Skeptic) March 12, 2014 at 6:26 am

    The plot’s just got even thicker: now there are accusations that 33 pages of Obokata’s PhD thesis are almost entirely copied and pasted from stemcells.nih.gov: http://www.ipscell.com/2014/03/beginning-of-end-for-stap-cell-story-possible-outcomes/#comment-25024

    • JATdS March 12, 2014 at 12:33 pm

      A separate analysis indicates that 20 pages of Obokata’s PhD 2011 thesis (108 pages in total) was copied almost word-for-word from an NIH web-page (http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics1.aspx), without due attribution: In other words: plagiarism.
      That information was reported in Japanese:
      http://headlines.yahoo.co.jp/hl?a=20140312-00000017-asahi-soci
      http://www.asahi.com/articles/ASG3C72D1G3CULZU00Q.html
      This therefore requires PhD theses of Japanese scientists (i.e., professors and their PhD graduates) to be closely examined for similar ethical transgressions in the literature (independent of the funding nature of the agency or research institute). This solidifies my critique made above, but is in no way meant to suggest (hopefully) that the problem is wide, or systemic, but plagiarism is something that is rarely respected, or even considered, by the Japanese researchers I personally know, at least in PhD theses.

      • Eamon March 12, 2014 at 11:00 pm

        I would caution treating Obokata’s copying of the NIH information as out-and-out plagiarism on her part. If she was required to present her thesis in English, her non-native language, then that is a mitigating factor. It also seems, from the news coverage, that what she copied was just descriptive text. If her thesis was on the works of Shakespeare, and she copied from texts analysing Shakespeare – that is palagarism of the worst kind – passing core academic work off as one’s own. Is anyone suggesting that she copied the experimental, discussion, or conclusions sections of her academic work from someone else?

        However, all that said, it does reflect badly on the institution she did her PhD at. What was her supervisor doing? The internal and external examiners? It would not surprise me if she was just told to copy something for the introduction section of her PhD. Who knows, this may be standard practice for scientific theses in Japan.

        On a more serious matter – one of her collaborators on the Nature paper has said he thinks some pictures in her thesis are present in the Nature paper in manipulated form. This bears watching, but also throws up questions about her institution.

        On finishing, I think we have to be careful when dealing with a young researcher, from a minority class, in a country with very different standards from the West. It may be expedient to throw her under the bus – but that might be just what her institution is considering right now, to save face.

        • JATdS March 13, 2014 at 1:30 pm

          Just because something may be considered to be “standard” doesn’t mean that it’s right. Stealing another’s ideas without due attribution is plagiarism, whether written in Greek, Turkish, Arabic, English, or Japanese. So, if this is “standard” in Japan, then there is alot of investigation that needs to take place. I am sure the Hungarians didn’t use that excuse when their president Pal Schmitt plagiarized (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/02/us-hungary-president-idUSBRE8310AX20120402), or the Germans when their Education and Science Minister Annette Schavan plagiarized (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/09/annette-schavan-resigns-germany-education-plagiarism_n_2652376.html). To try and offer excuses for the person committing plagiarism is wrong. It is possible that it was done naively, or in error, but 20-33 pages of error is not possible, or correct. And if the instructions to do so came from higher up, then Obokata has the responsibility of dragging herself from under the bus and throwing whoever was responsible under it, although I suspect this might be difficult in the “land of shame”.

          The following articles could be of interest.
          More German politicians plagiarize: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/11/world/europe/11iht-educside11.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
          The issue of politicians plagiarizing and of “plagiarism hunters”:
          http://www.dailytitan.com/2013/12/politicians-plagiarism-should-be-treated-as-a-serious-issue/
          http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/24/weekinreview/24greenberg.html
          http://www.plagiarismtoday.com/2008/09/12/the-politics-of-plagiarism/
          http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/st-john-s-mayor-accused-of-political-plagiarism-1.1376213

          This brings an interesting aspect to mind. Can anyone provide details or literature about the HISTORY and CULTURAL aspects of plagiarism, and when it was considered to be “unethical”. IT might be important to understand a bit of Eamon’s logic, and perhaps this “vilification” of plagiarism may have originated in the West…

          • JATdS March 14, 2014 at 3:07 am

            In Japan, the Obokata-Riken scandal has hit the top pages again of many news sources, including Yahoo Japan, even more important than the events in the Ukraine:
            http://www.yahoo.co.jp/
            http://dailynews.yahoo.co.jp/fc/science/stap_cells/?id=6110308

            There is alot of deep head-bowing taking place, usually that accompanies a scandal:
            http://dailynews.yahoo.co.jp/photograph/pickup/?1394776637

            And an incredible blog has blossomed with a incredibly detailed analysis of the duplications and manipulations (apologies, use Google translator to get to the bottom of the fascinating story):
            http://stapcells.blogspot.jp/

            What that site reveals is that in fact figure manipulation seems to involve Nature (Nature 505, 641–647 (30 January 2014) doi:10.1038/nature12968) and Tissue Engineering Part A (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20883115), although I am not sure what part the Nature Protocols paper may have: http://www.nature.com/nprot/journal/v6/n7/full/nprot.2011.356.html

            Apparently Riken was set to recive considerable funding by the Abe Government in April, just after the new rounds of Abenomics taxes set in. I would say that the timing is a little more than just coincidental.

            In my opinion, this has got nothing to do with stem cell research or some sort of an increase in misocnduct in stem cell research. I believe that this is politically motivated because stem cell research is so promising, so important, so ethically challenging and with massive potential for big, big business in the future. Despite all of this, it does not excuse the fact that so many images were manipulated in an incredible manner. I also believe that all authors of a paper must be held responsible, not just Obkata, who is struggling to get out from under the bus’ back tires.

          • Eamon March 14, 2014 at 8:41 am

            NHK News 9 reported on a 4-hour press conference by RIKEN tonight. Very serious issues were highlighted: Methods section had significant copying, cromatography pics were manipulated, and pictures were reused from Obokata’s thesis.

            There was talk of resubmitting the papers if the experimental results were confirmed.

            Also mentioned was poor communications in the core team of researchers, and Obokata’s immaturity.

            Retraction is looking likely. Dynamics of the core team will be interesting to see, if that is ever revealed.

          • nskeptic March 15, 2014 at 7:31 am

            It’s certainly true that the problems go far beyond Obokata herself, there were other authors on those papers, and as for her PhD thesis, it had multiple examiners. All of those individuals must be held accountable too. Obokata must not go from star Riken scientist to star Riken scapegoat.

  • A May 24, 2014 at 3:51 am

    Concern About papers of Azusa Okagawa(National Institute for Environmental Studies)

    http://bestbetter.up.seesaa.net/image/matome.pdf
    http://nieskaizan.doorblog.jp

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