Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why is everyone piling on that poor STAP stem cell woman?

I just read a little news feature in Nature today that made me very sad. For those of you who don't know, it's about the researcher from Japan who came up with this STAP method (stimulus-triggered activation of pluripotency), in which squeezing cells and putting them in acid can make them into pluripotent stem cells. This is a huge discovery, because it means you can make stem cells without having to perform the usual manipulations (such as genetic ones) to convert cells into stem cells.

Nature published these studies to huge fanfare a little while ago, but then, almost within a month or so, many people started to publicly question whether the results were true, including even one of the coauthors (one of those "victory has a thousand fathers, defeat is an orphan" situations). People started saying that nobody could replicate the findings, and also found some errors in the manuscript, including some plagiarized materials and methods, an old image of a teratoma and some gel-lane mixups. Her institute started an investigation, and she's had to hire a lawyer and defend herself to the press and (from this little Nature article) appears to be in the hospital.

This whole situation is completely ridiculous and strikes me as something that has gotten completely out of hand. Seriously, people, it's just a paper. First, to the method itself: it seems weird to me that people are criticizing this method already so soon after publication. Honestly, if I had a nickel for every time someone couldn't do RNA FISH and said our method doesn't work, I'd have, well, a lot of nickels. And that's something so easy to do that undergrads routinely do it on their first day in lab. Something tells me that this method must be fairly tricky, otherwise someone would have probably already figured it out by now. So let's give her the benefit of the doubt, at least for a couple years.

All the investigations into the little errors and discrepancies in her paper strike me as silly and vindictive. Would all of your papers survive such deep scrutiny? Yes, her paper is very important, significantly more so than anything I've ever done, but remember that's she's still just a scientist working in a lab like you and me. Any paper is such a huge mess of data and figures that little errors will creep in from time to time. To discount her work because of them is utterly ridiculous. And plagiarism of materials and methods? Come on! How many ways can you describe how you culture cells?

And if her work doesn't end up panning out? SO WHAT! Again, it's just a paper! If I had a nickel for every Nature paper that ended up being wrong, well, you know what I'm saying. I personally know of several examples of big Cell, Science, Nature papers that are wrong that got people fancy jobs at top institutions, grants, tenure, etc. Some of these are cases in which people have grossly overstated the effect of something through some sort of tricky analysis. Some of these are cases in which the authors greatly overinterpreted the data, leading them to the wrong conclusion, often because of some sloppy science. Some of these are in the fraud gray zone, where they cover up particular discrepant results that either confuse or refute the main conclusions, or do experiments over and over again until they get the "right" outcome. Those people have jobs and everyone's happy–they're certainly not being investigated by their own institutions. Why is this woman being taken down so hard? Is it because what she's doing is so important? In that case, the lesson is clear: don't do anything important. Is that the message we want to be sending?

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