Got a few negative comments on my last blog post about the STAP fiasco. Seems like some folks think I’m being overly apologetic or that I have no idea that she faked data. Haha, reminds me why I should just stick to blogging about Chipotle! Also, for the record, in case anyone cares (which I sincerely hope they don’t), I do not have, nor am qualified to give, any opinion as to whether the papers should be retracted or whether STAP cells are real. This is about the vilification of Obokata.
First of all, let me just say (in case it’s not obvious) that if someone has faked data, well, then they should be out of the game, permanently. I think everyone agrees that intentionally fabricating data is a capital offense.
Where, however, is the line between sloppy science and fabrication? Is it the intent to deceive? Are we sure Obokata had such intent? Let’s look at the evidence that I am aware of (and for those out there who think I was completely clueless about the context, I had considered most of this before writing my post).
Here is the RIKEN investigation’s report. At issue are two main problems: splicing of the lane of a gel and duplicating some teratoma figures from Obokata’s thesis. To the former, well, it was an inappropriate manipulation (scaled and spliced a positive control lane from one gel into another because it looked a bit better), but the original gel data was there and, while the manipulation was certainly not a good thing to do, it seems as though she wasn’t even aware that this was a bad thing to do. Moreover, her raw data doesn’t appear, from what I can find, to contradict what she portrayed. I’m not saying that this was a good thing to do, just that it seems like an honest mistake. The RIKEN report does not contradict this sentiment, by the way.
Then there is the more damning issue of the use of teratoma images duplicated from Obokata’s thesis. Yes, this is outright fabrication. Again, are we absolutely sure there was intent to deceive? Yes, I admit it does seem a bit weird that she would have forgotten what pictures came from where, especially from her thesis. That said, Obokata says that she has since provided what she claims to be correct images, although the data trail is very weak (which, by the way, is the case for imaging data in almost every biomedical research lab I’ve seen). Indeed, the RIKEN report itself says that she and Sasai provided the “correct" images just before the investigation began when notified of the issue, and so they didn’t even think they needed to provide further explanation. Obokata also maintains that she submitted a correction to Nature.
Certainly, this is beyond sloppy, probably worthy of retraction. But it also seems true, based on the report, that alternative images showing the effect exist that are not duplicates of her thesis (be these images legitimate or not). So, is she a fool or a knave? To the former, if we assume that she actually has the correct images and they show the right thing, as she maintains, then what other rational explanation is there for the images than an honest mistake? I mean, it beggars belief that she would purposefully show duplicated images when she had the right ones in hand. Now let’s assume she’s a knave and that she didn't actually have teratoma images and needed to manufacture evidence. Again, there is STILL absolutely no motivation for her to intentionally use images from her thesis when she had other non-duplicated fake-worthy images in hand. So she’s either a (yes, very) sloppy scientist, or an utterly incompetent faker.
I’ve never met this woman, and I’m not here to defend her honor, but personally, without seeing more of the evidence, I would feel reluctant to destroy a young woman’s life by branding her a liar and a fraud. I also wonder if we’d all be giving her the benefit of the doubt on all this if her results were immediately replicated by a dozen labs (and Wakayama did actually replicate the experiment, with coaching from Obokata). Would we then be asking for an erratum instead?
As I pointed out before, it’s absolutely nuts to deliberately fake results like this. What is the endgame? It’s obvious that people will attempt to replicate immediately, and so any “fame” would be fleeting at best, followed by probably the darkest period in your life. Whether she misinterpreted her data and those putative STAP cells are actually dying cells or contaminating cells or whatever, is a separate issue than whether she intentionally misled people in her work. Being (honestly) wrong in science isn’t the end of the world, nor should it be.
Or whatever, maybe I’m just hopelessly naive and she really is a faker and a cheat. I, like others, am working with limited information. If so, fine, I was wrong, and maybe she does deserve to be piled on. I’ve already written way more about this than I ever intended, and the whole thing has taken up way more of my brain space than I wanted. I suspect I'm not the only one to feel that way.