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.



  • Edward

    “No wonder they fake their data. They know they can get away with it.”

    Well, at least some scientific fields are making an effort by calling out those scientists that they catch. If only the effort to catch them were more robust.

    Aren’t you glad that those guys don’t make the planes that *you* fly on? My point being that at least they aren’t scientists in a life-critical field, like aerospace or medicine.

    Oh, wait. They *are* in the medical field. How horrifying!

  • Actually, these particular scientists are really not in the medical field. They are in the medical research field, which is academic and not usually involved directly with the treatment of patients.

    In many ways, what you write illustrates the fundamental difference between applied knowledge and pure knowledge. Engineers and doctors deal with applied knowledge: What they do or design or build must work or they will quickly be discovered as frauds and failures.

    Scientists who do academic research are separated from reality. They can gather data, twist it to their liking, and no one will often know about it. When that data begins to approach reality, however, like in climate science or in medical research, the fakery cannot be hidden for long.

  • Cotour

    Excellent illustration, there will be problems when Reality inconveniently collides with what is desired to be reality.

  • Orion314

    “when the legend becomes truth, print the legend!”
    ….the man who shot liberty valance

  • Edward


    Whew! For a moment there I thought that I would never be able to trust stem cell treatments or cures. [sarcasm off]

    You are correct. Theoretical scientists give us ideas to test, experimental scientists try to make the hypothesis work, and engineers try to make useful products (medicines, devices, airplanes) out of that theory. The Wright brothers spent time doing all three of these — or at least the latter two.

    I am concerned, however, that despite the fakery in climate science having been exposed five years ago, and more fakery is exposed all the time, people still cling to the fraudulently obtained conclusions.

    It is valid to suggest that the conclusions could be correct despite the fraud, but it is equally valid to question why the conclusions could not be reached without fudged data.

    Policy makers around the world have already committed tens of millions of man-years worth of productivity to try to control the weather, but that is based upon fudged data and models that are unable to correctly predict the future. For instance, Germany spent $128 billion dollars and announced, a couple of years ago, that they delayed global warming by a mere 23 hours. At that rate, stopping global warming would cost $50 trillion each year (in a world with a $60 trillion total economy) — assuming that global warming actually was delayed by the Germans.

    If the field of medical research fails to control its scientists, that field could likewise spend precious resources on bogus pursuits. Resources that could have been applied to finding *real* cures and treatments.

    The price of fraud is that someone, somewhere, always suffers.

  • Tom Billings

    “If the field of medical research fails to control its scientists, that field could likewise spend precious resources on bogus pursuits. Resources that could have been applied to finding *real* cures and treatments.

    The price of fraud is that someone, somewhere, always suffers.”

    The difference, for academics is that the suffering is usually 20 years down the road (not always, looking back at the Wakefield/vaccination research frauds), while in engineering the price often shows up in months. The bridge breaks, …the boat won’t float, …with humans on board. The negative feedback is most often hard and fast in those circumstances. For academics, most have already moved on, after mining one particular “main line of research” long enough to get tenure, or later, a Departmental Chair.

    But we should remember that academics are not at the core of the problem. That is monopsony. When 85-95% of the research in a field is bought by a hierarchy whose agents have an interest in how this affects politics, then the agency costs of all those agents *will* affect how science workers ask questions, look for answers, and report results. Even if they want to be pure as the driven snow, the common practice of universities to provide grant writing help for all researchers ensures the magnification of pressure from the university’s desire for more grant money to share with the researcher, while keeping a percentage for the University.

    Until a research field reduces it dependence on a monopsony buyer of research below 10%, I see little hope for lasting reform.

  • joe

    A testament to the brainwashing of average American citizens by a complicit media.

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