Here we Go Again!

What’s behind paper retractions? (22)
by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Labtimes 02/2014

Photo: zettberlin / Source: PHOTOCASE

Allegations of irregularities in stem cell papers are becoming all too common.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” as Carl Sagan was fond of saying. But when it comes to stem cell research, it seems, big science journals are more likely to fall over themselves in the quest for massive citation numbers than they are to critically examine the evidence.

Consider these headlines:

  • December 15, 2005, Nature (about studies that appeared in Science): “Stem-cell pioneer accused of faking data”
  • January 11, 2006, Nature (on same studies): “Verdict: Hwang’s human stem cells were all fakes”
  • December 27, 2012, Retraction Watch (about study that appeared in Stem Cells and Development): “Stem cell retraction leaves grad student in limbo, reveals tangled web of industry-academic ties”
  • May 22, 2013, Science: “Cell Investigating Breakthrough Stem Cell Paper”
  • May 23, 2013, Science (about same Cell paper): “Mislabeled Images Bedevil Landmark Cloning Paper”
  • January 29, 2014, Nature (about a study that appeared in Nature): “Acid bath offers easy path to stem cells. Just squeezing or bathing cells in acidic conditions can readily reprogram them into an embryonic state.”
  • February 17, 2014, Nature: “Acid-bath stem-cell study under investigation. Japanese research institute launches inquiry after allegations of irregularities in blockbuster papers.”
  • Big comeback for cheater

    The first case referring to Woo-Suk Hwang is, of course, well-known and led to two Science retractions, among other fallout. But don’t worry, Hwang has had a big comeback: running his own institute where he clones dogs and even earning a U.S. patent for a method that cites his two retracted papers.

    The story behind the 2012 headline on our blog led to widespread press coverage and ongoing investigations. The 2013 story – which involved a paper accepted within four days – led to a 739-word correction in Cell dated June 6, 2013.

    And while the story behind the 2014 headlines is only now beginning to unfold, signs point to at least some kind of walking back of the papers, such as by a correction. All of this is enough to make us quote the famous line from Casablanca, uttered by Captain Renault just before he is handed his winnings: “I’m shocked – shocked – to find that gambling is going on in here!”

    It’s also enough to make us like ­PubPeer – where the two most recent cases were uncovered – even more. We really have to ask why the peer reviewers of two of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals couldn’t find what PubPeer commenters did, nearly immediately.

    Rushed reviewers

    If you ask Cell editor Emilie Marcus, it wasn’t because the peer reviewers were rushed. “It is a misrepresentation to equate slow peer review with thoroughness or rigor or to use timely peer review as a justification for sloppiness in manuscript preparation,” she said at the time.

    (Of course, by “timely” what Marcus really means is “hurried”, since to the best of our knowledge there’s no such thing as just-in-time peer reviewing. Indeed, the fact that journals choose to expedite the process for certain splashy articles means either that the typical process is inefficient or the rush jobs are just that: rushed.)

    Perhaps Glenn Begley, the former head of research at Amgen whose 2012 article in Nature – yes, Nature – caused a stir when he said that 47 out of 53 “landmark” studies couldn’t be reproduced by his company’s scientists was onto something when he blamed confirmation bias. “People will find the answer that the reviewer wants to guarantee publication,” he later told Nature.

    We find it hard to imagine, even on our most optimistic of days, that Cell, Nature and Science won’t fall for sloppy or fraudulent work again. Here’s an idea: figure out a way to run the manuscripts through PubPeer before you publish them. After all, if journals are going to take bets, they at least ought to use all of the advantages that being the House has to offer.

    The authors run the blog Retraction Watch:

    Last Changed: 20.03.2014