Investigation Of Milestone Stem Cell Papers Finds No Misconduct So Far

Investigators examined two out of six accusations of plagiarism and falsification against the papers. They're still working on the remaining accusations.

Haruko Obokata

An investigation of two troubled stem-cell papers has found no evidence, so far, of “research misconduct,” the investigating institute said in an announcement. The institute, RIKEN of Tokyo, looked at two accusations against the papers and is still waiting to rule on four more. RIKEN employs many of the scientists involved in the papers, which made news in January because they described fast and easy way to turn adult skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells. But the papers quickly drew criticism as other scientists found their results impossible to reproduce.

RIKEN launched its investigation in response to the criticism. Its latest announcement, made Friday, is especially helpful because it lays out which criticisms RIKEN is considering. Among the “items still under investigation” are charges that a section of one of the papers was copied from another paper, and that some photos in the papers, purporting to show new experiments, were actually copied from research conducted by one of the scientists as a graduate student.

RIKEN defines “research misconduct” as plagiarizing other papers, making up data, or manipulating data unfairly.

The stem-cell folks don’t seem to agree whether to retract their papers.

Among the two items RIKEN has decided upon, it found that one was an honest mistake, in which someone forgot to delete a photo before including it in the published paper. “This was not judged as a case of research misconduct,” the RIKEN announcement explained, because “there was no malice intended.”

What happens now? Well, RIKEN’s investigation will continue. The institute will also publish an English-language version of its report “at a later date,” it says.

As for the papers themselves, the scientists who wrote it have the option of retracting it, which means formally withdrawing it from publication. A retraction is a sign that there’s a major problem with a paper. Among other reasons, scientists may retract—or be forced to retract—their papers when they’ve been found to have made up data or plagiarized writing. Scientists may also retract papers about research they conducted honestly, but later research found incorrect. (This doesn’t always happen, but it’s nice when it does.)

The stem-cell folks don’t seem to agree whether to retract their papers. One author, Teruhiko Wakayama of the University of Yamanashi, previously told reporters he wanted to retract the papers. The senior scientist on the papers, Charles Vacanti of Harvard University in the U.S., “has made clear that he does not plan to retract,” Nature News reported.

It’s not as clear what the remaining authors from RIKEN think. Nature News reported that the director of the RIKEN Center for Development Biology, Masatoshi Takeichi, said at a press conference that the RIKEN authors agreed to retract. But a statement from the authors only said they were discussing the possibility.

This case has generated a lot of interest in the Japanese general media, as well as science media around the world. Check out Nature News for a look at the scene from a press conference RIKEN held on Friday.

[RIKEN, Nature News]