It’s happened again. A bright, young researcher publishes a breakthrough paper, receives acclaim and adulation. Then questions arise. The work cannot be reproduced, the original data seems suspicious. Rumors circulate of sloppy work, fraud, fabrication, culminating in denunciations and calls for retraction.
Game Changing Research. Or Not.
The case in hand is that of two papers published early this year by Japanese researcher Haruko Obokata in Nature. The papers claimed that mature animal cells could be transformed into stem cells by a simple technique, basically dipping them in weak acid. Isolating stem cells without destroying embryos would indeed be a breakthrough and Obokata became an instant celebrity in Japan. But no one could reproduce the published work. And some readers noticed that illustrations in the papers didn’t look right; one seemed to be a superposition of two images, and another looked like an image from Obokata’s doctoral thesis on a different topic. One co-author recommended retraction, and after an investigation, so did the research institute that Obokata worked for. They made their announcement at a news conference on April 1.
The More Things Change…
Although it’s too early to say for sure what’s going on in this case, the signs are ominous. The scenario fits, too well, that of the high profile fake scientific paper. Back when I was in graduate school the scandal de jour was a revolutionary paper on cancer biogenesis involving a “protein cascade.” Here again there was a young lead researcher teamed up with a senior mentor and a distinguished team of coworkers. A ground breaking paper was published on a hot current topic, garnering the researcher instant fame, and almost instant infamy when the work could not be reproduced. Few people know about this scandal today—my Google search on “protein cascade scandal” didn’t turn up anything relevant. No doubt this is because such scandals erupt every few years and the fresh ones displace the old ones in the public’s memory.
If you are a senior researcher mentoring a promising youngster, you should be gratified if the protégé makes a breathtaking discovery. After catching your breath, scrutinize the data. Really scrutinize it. Ask to see the originals of all the analytical work. The budding scientist will be glad to oblige, if he’s honest.
For more information on the Obokata controversy see the following links: