Scientists seek demigod status, journals want blockbuster results, and retractions are on the rise.
Jill Neimark in Aeon:
On 5 August 2014, a celebrated Japanese scientist was found dead, hanging by his neck at his workplace, his shoes politely removed and placed on the landing of the stairs. Yoshiki Sasai, 52, was a legendary stem-cell expert, widely regarded as an exceptional scientist, who worked at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe. Seven months before he killed himself, Sasai and colleagues in Japan and Boston announced a stupefying research breakthrough in two papers inNature. They claimed that ordinary mouse blood cells could be transformed into powerful stem cells – the holy grail of regenerative medicine – by simply bathing them in a mildly acidic solution (called STAP, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency).
Almost instantly, the work was called into question. Accusations surfaced in the science blogosphere that images in the papers had been duplicated or altered, and at least eight scientists announced that they were unable to reproduce the experiment. In February 2014, RIKEN launched an internal investigation, and found the 30-year-old lead author, Haruko Obokata, guilty of scientific misconduct (which includes falsification, fabrication, or plagiarism). She had been Sasai’s protégé.
In June, Science reported that earlier versions of the STAP work had been rejected by three top journals: Cell, Science and even Nature itself. Science quoted RIKEN’s report, where peer reviewers raised many troubling questions. ‘This is such an extraordinary claim that a very high level of proof is required,’ wrote one. Another said the paper was ‘simply not credible’. Scientists once again took to the blogosphere asking why Nature had published flawed work and whether journals today value hype over substantive science.
In July, Nature retracted both papers – essentially stamping them with a scarlet letter. Retraction lofted the scandal to worldwide infamy. One evening, when Obokata left work in a taxi, a reporter on a motorcycle started following her. She stopped at a hotel, but was pursued up the escalator and into the bathroom by five journalists, including a cameraman, and sprained her right elbow trying to get away.