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Lab may have to retract groundbreaking stem cell paper as questions arise

Kyodo, Staff Report

A government-affiliated laboratory said Tuesday it is considering retracting a research paper on a trailblazing method to create stem cells that drew global attention after one of the co-authors said the paper should be withdrawn until certain aspects are confirmed.

Questions have been raised about images and wording used in the paper, which was written by a group led by Haruko Obokata at Riken’s Center for Developmental Biology on a method the group named “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency,” or STAP.

Riken spokesman Satoru Kagaya said in Tokyo that the institute will report progress of an inquiry into the research paper Friday, and that it will take a while for the inquiry committee to compile its final report.

“Though it’s still in the middle of the inquiry, we’re looking into the matter eyeing the possible retraction of the paper published in the journal Nature in terms of credibility of the paper and research ethics,” Kagaya said.

He said that Obokata is continuing the STAP research at the lab in Kobe, but she has not issued a public comment about the controversy.

University of Yamanashi professor Teruhiko Wakayama, one of the co-authors of the paper, said Monday, “It’s better to retract it once and submit it again after making sure that data are all correct and it won’t be criticized by anyone.”

The paper was published in two installments by 14 people in the British scientific journal Nature in late January.

Charles Vacanti of Harvard Medical School, who was among the 14, has opposed Wakayama’s proposal for retracting the paper.

“Some mistakes were made, but they don’t affect the conclusions,” the tissue engineer was quoted Monday by The Wall Street Journal as saying in an interview published in its online edition. “Based on the information I have, I see no reason why these papers should be retracted.”

The STAP method is purported to reprogram cells by exposing them to stress, such as using an acid bath, to acquire versatile functions free of ethical issues linked with embryonic stem cells and without genetic intervention needed in the so-called iPS reprogramming procedure.

“We believe the crux of the paper remains unwavering, but we are taking the proposal seriously,” Riken said Monday of the co-author’s call for withdrawal.

The research paper will be retracted if consensus is reached by all the authors.

Wakayama said, “An important part that affects the basis of the paper is not accurate, and I don’t even know what STAP cells are when I look at photos (used in the paper) now.”

Wakayama said he got STAP cells from Obokata to use in experiments involving mice and wasn’t involved in creating the cells.

He said he called for a retraction to other co-authors after learning that the STAP cell paper may have used images from a doctoral thesis of Obokata.

  • Steve Jackman

    A retraction of the stem cell study would be another blemish for Japan within the international community, since news of this research by Japanese scientists was so widely reported around the world. I have always wondered about the prevalence of mistakes in work which I experienced at companies that I worked for in Japan. This call for retraction of the Japanese stem cell study by one of the Japanese co-autors has once again put the spotlight on this problem.

    Things got so bad at a company I worked for in Tokyo, that everytime I would check my subordinates’ work, for me it was never a matter of if I would find mistakes, but how many mistakes I could uncover. Many of these were due to pure sloppiness, carelessness, an inability to think independently, critically or to ask questions, a blind allegiance to protocol and heirarchy, group think, and a fear of being perceived as a troublemaker or someone who is not a team player.

    This made me understand why Japanese companies place such importance on manuals, rules and doing things by the book, since their staff are usually very good at following rules that have been written down for them. This style may work well for manufacturing industries, but not for research, STEM fileds (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), or in the knowledge industries of the future.

    • Franz Pichler

      That might all be true but in academia things work very differently. All papers, especially to Nature, are peer reviewed and undergo a very serious “check”, to use your words. Comparing “a company you worked in” and “the publication of a paper in one of the worlds most prestigious journals” is like comparing apples with pears, it’s not the way to go. Furthermore, as per today, the “mistakes” that seemed to have been made are in no way relevant for the conclusion of the paper. Uncovering problems in “your” company was very wise of you but to go from there to go “down the cultural” line and deduct that “it was obvious” that this would happen “because they’re Japanese” is not very intelligent. We’re all human and mistakes have been made, are made and will always be made. The conclusion of the paper at this point is not in question so one should not jump to conclusions. I also do not believe that it has anything to do with “cultural” aspects, just remember the big scandal in Korea years ago…

      • Steve Jackman

        I understand that things work differently in academia as compared to the corporate world.

        However, I do feel that foreigners sometimes have a tendency to treat the Japanese with kid gloves and give the Japanese the benefit of the doubt too easily, when they should instead be holding the Japanese to the same high standard as everyone else. Some of this is done in the name of cultural sensitivity, some of it is a result of language and communication issues, and some is just the unfamiliarity many foreigners have of the way things work within the Japanese context. Regarless of the reasons, lowering the bar is good neither for the foreigners, nor for the Japanese, as this this stem cell study demonstrates.

    • Steve Novosel

      “Many of these were due to pure sloppiness, carelessness, an inability to
      think independently, critically or to ask questions, a blind allegiance
      to protocol and heirarchy, group think, and a fear of being perceived
      as a troublemaker or someone who is not a team player.”

      It’s a
      pretty bad supervisor who has a constant stream of subordinate problems
      and doesn’t recognize that he himself might just be the problem.

      Japan
      is a leader in scientific fields, not just manufacturing ones, and one
      of the reason for that is that there are many smart, well-educated men
      and women very capable of critical thinking.

      I manage a team of
      scientists right now – I can honestly say in all the years I have
      worked here I have seen none of what you describe. To a person my staff
      are well organized, innovative, flexible, and meticulous. They catch
      small mistakes that even I as their supervisor would likely miss. They
      come up with new solutions constantly.

  • Steve Jackman

    I never said that falsification does not happen in other countries.

    However, my point is that in my own personal experience working in Japan for over a decade, I have seen much higher incidence of sloppiness, falsification, plagiarism, disregard for ethics, people taking inappropriate shortcuts, and a tendency to play fast and loose with data and the facts. What has been even more troubling is that much of this was done by highly educated and qualified people who should know better.

    Secondly, as I wrote earlier, it seems that foreigners often lower the bar when working with the Japanese, let their guard down too easily, and do not use enough healthy skepticism, since they often fall for the myth that things work differently in Japan, so they should just defer to the Japanese.

    • Steve Novosel

      Again, I would say that I have seen the exact opposite. My Japanese coworkers – scientists, all of them – are much more meticulous, better organized, and ethical than my experiences working outside Japan (in several countries).

      I think you have chosen to see what you want to see.