More fraud in peer-reviewed science

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The science journal Nature today announced the retraction of two controversial stem cell papers.

The two papers reporting the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) phenomenon appeared online on 29 January. Questions about the papers arose almost immediately, leading to an investigation by RIKEN, the headquarters of the network of the nationally funded laboratories that is based in Wako near Tokyo. Investigators documented several instances of fabrication and falsification in the papers and concluded that some of these constituted research misconduct on the part of [Haruko] Obokata [the lead author].

Japanese media recently reported that authors had agreed to retract the papers but were discussing the wording of the notice. In the note that appeared today, the authors point to errors previously identified by RIKEN investigations in supplementary documents. They also identify additional errors in both papers, including mix-ups in images, mislabeling, faulty descriptions, and “inexplicable discrepancies in genetic background and transgene insertion sites between the donor mice and the reported” STAP cells. [emphasis mine]

The list of errors now documented sound astonishing. In fact, I can’t see how any serious review by any competent specialist in this field could have missed them all, which suggests that for this research at least the peer-review process is mostly a sham. In fact, in the article Nature admits that its

policy had been “to check a small proportion of accepted papers” for image manipulation. In this case, as the authors explain in the retraction notice, images were duplicated across panels and in several panels, and images were mislabeled—problems more difficult to catch. “We are now reviewing our practices to increase such checking greatly, and we will announce our policies when the review is completed,” the editorial notes.

In other words, they haven’t really been reviewing most papers. When I read this stuff, I immediately think of climate change, and how frequently we have found unreliable the work of many of the scientists in that field. No wonder they fake their data. They know they can get away with it.

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