Wednesday, March 12, 2014

(OT) "Copy & Paste" Your Way to a PhD, to Peer-Reviewed Nature Magazine

This news, at least on the net in Japan, was probably the most talked-about news on March 11, overshadowing the 3rd anniversary of the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.

From Nature's Newsblog (3/10/2014; emphasis is mine):

Call for acid-bath stem-cell paper to be retracted

Less than 40 days after a team led by Haruko Obokata of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan, presented two stunning papers claiming a method of using a simple acid-bath method to reprogramme mature mammalian cells back to an embryonic state – so called STAP cells – researchers in Japan, including one of the paper’s co-authors, are calling for them to be retracted.

Within weeks of their January 30 publication, the paper was criticized for irregularities and apparent duplicated images. Numerous scientists also had difficulty reproducing the supposedly simple method. The team responded with the promise of corrections and a list of tips to help other scientists to reproduce the results.

Over the weekend, however, two more serious problems surfaced. The Nature paper was found to contain two images apparently duplicated from Obokata’s doctoral dissertation. Her thesis also reported experiments dealing with cells that were supposedly in an embryonic state, but the cells reported in the Nature paper were said to be derived from a different process in an altogether different experiment.

The revelation has led to a flurry of calls – including some from senior scientists in Japan – for the paper to be retracted.

Perhaps the most damning comes from Teruhiko Wakayama, a cloning expert at Yamanashi University and a corresponding author on one of the papers. Interviewed by NHK news, Wakayama said: “I have lost faith in the paper. Overall there are now just too many uncertainties about it. I think we have to wait for some confirmation.” Wakayama calls for an investigation of all the laboratory notebooks and data. He continues: “To check the legitimacy of the paper, we should retract it, prepare proper data and images, and then use those to demonstrate, with confidence, that the paper is correct.” Wakayama reportedly contacted all of the authors requesting that they agree to retract the paper. RIKEN says it is still investigating the case.

The STAP paper by Obokata also contains "copy and paste" from a paper published in 2005, without any citation or reference.

Professor Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School, co-author of the paper on STAP cell, says there is no need for retraction. Professor Vacanti also happens to be one of the researchers who reviewed Ms. Obokata's doctoral thesis in 2011 from Waseda University.

In Japan, this doctoral thesis is now being dissected in details. A huge chunk of the 100-page thesis - 22 pages out of 24-page introduction was found to have been taken from the National Institute of Health website. One of the key photographs was found to have been taken from a commercial biotech company's website. Even the references to several chapters of the thesis turned out to be "copy & paste" from other papers. There is now a doubt whether Ms. Obokata did the experiment as she claimed in the thesis at all.

So far, there is no direct evidence to indicate that STAP cell is also made up, a hoax. However, Nikkan Gendai, a Japanese daily tabloid, raises an interesting point that Obokata and her group used old, dated equipment (which was used in the late 1990s) to take the photographs of STAP cells when her employer, RIKEN, no doubt had the most advanced, top-of-the-line equipment for such purpose.

The Japanese media and politicians have been very eager to present a young, female Japanese scientist to the world. Maybe they have been too eager.


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