Scientific Misconduct: Teaching an Old Stem Cell New Tricks

There are no shortcuts in training a somatic cell!
Lucky Dog, CBS.
Many Ph.D. students will see the announcement for their RCR (Responsible Conduct in Research) training and roll their eyes. They'll feel like their time is better spent in the lab instead of listening to a professor tell them it is wrong to pull numbers out of thin air that show that their data is both statistically and biologically meaningful. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn't fabricate data, right? The truth is, scientific misconduct is a real, ongoing phenomenon, and even the best scientific journals and institutions can be affected. As tempting as it may sound to fudge some numbers or merge two gels together to ensure a paper gets accepted, realize that the consequences can be dire and may have a substantial impact on your life and others around you.
A story that began in 2014, and continues to evolve, places RCR into the spotlight. In January of last year, Nature published two high profile papers by the RIKEN Institute on a phenomenon termed stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency, or STAP1. The paper made headlines on its own, suggesting that mammalian somatic cells could be reprogrammed by something as simple as a low pH treatment. That month, the authors of the paper, including first author Dr. Obokata, began doing interviews and rose to international fame in short time2. Just as quickly, skepticism concerning the methods and data popped up, with many finding vital "errors" and notable omissions in the paper. Some even created a blog dedicated to problems with the paper3. By February, the authors of the papers began to admit that mistakes were made, and RIKEN started an internal investigation into the papers with the authors, even as calls for retractions began4. The allegations against the paper included:
  • Plagiarism
  • Image Manipulation (in multiple locations)
  • Purposely Mislabeling Figures (in multiple locations)
  • Misrepresenting Actual Methods Used
  • Misinterpretation of Data (including flow cytometry data)

Are paper towel lab notes considered misconduct? Maybe not, but make sure your notebook can be interpreted by others!
In July, both papers were officially retracted. The RIKEN investigation findings were published as supplemental material to the retraction article5. In the retraction, the authors maintain that while no intentional misconduct was committed, the errors were so grave that it weakened the paper such that it was no longer worthy of publication. The results of the RIKEN investigation painted a slightly different picture, though. RIKEN concluded that misconduct was not verifiable regarding many of the "mistakes", as the record-keeping (remember to take good lab notes!) and data management by the authors were so poor that many issues could be chalked up to negligence. However, they were able to find that Dr. Obokata had manipulated data on two different gels and that her lab notes were so sloppy that they greatly prohibited the open exchange of information. RIKEN also noted that the senior authors on the paper, by allowing the paper to be submitted without verifying the accuracy of the data, also shared in the responsibility for this misconduct.
To our readers, it may be obvious why a scientist might do something like this. International fame, career progression, and, sometimes, monetary gain could be reasons why someone might turn to misconduct. However, a bigger question is, with such glaring mistakes, how was this paper not only published, but published in Nature, a journal that most of us can only dream of publishing in? Does this mean that our peer review system is broken? What does it mean when a terrible paper riddled with errors gets through, but ours don't even get past the editor?
For one, the peer review system is not necessarily broken. The STAP paper was also sent to Cell and Science, and even Nature once before. All three journals rejected it, and the Science reviews were very critical based on the leaked documents6. No one really knows why Nature accepted the first paper 10 months after its initial rejection, but maybe the issue lies only with the specific reviewers and editor of this paper. The paper’s novelty and potential for headlines may have played a part in its eventual acceptance.
The fallout has been massive, as most of the authors of the paper resigned from RIKEN following the incident. One senior author committed suicide two months after the retraction, and RIKEN is now considering litigation against the lead author for misuse of research funds7.

The STAP saga just stresses the fact that research misconduct is still a real phenomenon, and RCR training is required not only to prevent us from ever starting misconduct, but also to help us spot it and to know what steps to take when we notice it. Perhaps stories like this can serve as a warning to future scientists that misconduct is not worth the risk, particularly when you consider considering how much these two papers affected the lives of the authors and others involved in it. It serves as a notice to high profile journals, as well, that all papers require equal scrutiny and careful reviews. Have any comments about this story? Let us know your comments by e-mailing
  1. First STAP Paper, Nature
  2. STAP Press Release, Nature
  3. STAP Paper Inaccuracies Blog
  4. Co-authors Admit Mistakes in STAP Paper, Asahi Shumbun
  5. STAP Papers Retracted, Nature
  6. Science Review of STAP Paper, IPS Cell
  7. RIKEN Considers Criminal Charges for Obokata, The Japan Times
Contributed by Ed Chen, Ph.D.
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