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Biotech Science

How Did Those STAP Stem Cell Papers Get Accepted In the First Place? 109

bmahersciwriter writes The news team at the scientific journal Nature turns its investigative power on the journal itself. The goal: to try and understand how two papers that made extraordinary claims about a new way to create stem cells managed to get published despite some obvious errors and a paucity of solid evidence. The saga behind these so-called STAP cells is engaging, but sadly reminiscent of so many other scientific controversies.
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How Did Those STAP Stem Cell Papers Get Accepted In the First Place?

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  • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @10:00PM (#47381127)

    The biggest difference is that science accepts it's lumps and corrects them.

    Yes but... Science has bigger problems correcting them, and takes much longer to do so, when political and financial pressure tempt people to look the other way. Scientists are people too.

    Beg to differ. go to retraction

    As far as I can tell, there is no correction mechanism for politically based incorrect assumptions. Just as example - the job creator myth. It's still cited as gospel by many, while the evidence is clear it doesn't create jobs.

    Galileo Galilei finally got forgiven by the Catholic church, when Pope Paul admitted the churches "errors" the church made - almost 400 years later. Regardless of political bias, I don't see either of the big two parties having a website of fact checked "We were wrong about this" stuff - at all - much less in a timely fashion.

  • by pepty ( 1976012 ) on Thursday July 03, 2014 @11:15PM (#47381369) is great for the most influential journals but it's safe to say it's only catching a small minority of the infractions, and of those really only the ones published in english. One cynical solution: as grant money continues to dry up, scientists will realize that the easiest way to improve their chances to get their grant approved is to thin out the competition: exhaustively check their competitors' publications and old grant applications for plagiarism and fraud, then complain anonymously.
  • by Foske ( 144771 ) on Friday July 04, 2014 @03:36AM (#47382013)

    As a former reviewer working for a very renowned research institute in Europe I can say: Peers typically don't get/take the time to do their job right, and often outsource the job to less experienced people. Reproducing results is a very expensive and time consuming job, which means: unless it is it won't happen. You must be lucky if the reviewers have at least read the paper till the end. Quite often the review happens by people who are "no experts" in the field of the paper. For many conferences, papers with a bad rating still pass because there are not sufficient good papers, or if it is easy to guess the institute the authors work for, the paper passes without proper review.

    Once our institute had a paper rejected, but my boss -who was in the review team- managed to get the paper accepted anyway. High profile conference in Electronic Engineering.

    As a former paper author I can say: If your paper is rejected for one conference, you simply resubmit to another until it is accepted. Publish or perish is the holy grail of research, something many bosses will make very clear to you, and quality is less important. You don't write a paper because you have results, you write a paper because this or that major conference has a deadline in two weeks. I have a few paper on my name I am ashamed of: Omitting the bad results in the measurements, compare with competitors only on the features you know you would win because the comparison doesn't make sense at all, bragging about results which are very bad, but you hide that by not comparing to (avoiding any reference to) competitors which are better.

    As you might understand, I quit the job. I left research and never ever want to have anything to do with it anymore.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Friday July 04, 2014 @05:21AM (#47382277)

    Peer review works if the people doing the review are honest and competent. Both aspects have been in sharp decline, not only in the biomedical field. These days, positions for Professors and PhD students are more often than not filled with people that can simulate competence and that have no or little personal ethics whatsoever. They will form groups that accept any and all papers from each other and reject anything from others. Anything original also generally has a high chance of getting rejected, unless the reviewers know and like the authors. The peer-review system is so broken and corrupt that it has just stopped working as the quality of the "researchers" forming it is way too often abysmally bad. (And forget about "anonymous reviews". The in-group has all the Tech-Reports from their friends and can recognize all papers written by them.)

    This is not a new phenomenon, it seems to just be getting worse again. But remember that Shannon had trouble publishing his "Theory of Information", because no reviewer understood it or was willing to invest time for something new.

  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Friday July 04, 2014 @05:34AM (#47382319)

    One very common scenario for knowingly faked "results" is this: PhD Student has his/her funding running out and gets set an ultimatum (explicitly or implicitly). PhD student fakes something, sometimes looking pretty good at first glance. Advisor is too stupid, lazy or full of him/herself to notice. Paper gets published because advisor is "respected" in the community.

    I have seen this happening quite a few times, including one case where all authors, except the first one (the PhD student), wrote what was basically a retraction a year later. But did anything happen to these people? No. The PhD student still has his PhD, despite his results being essentially worthless. The other authors still have their reputation. The faked publications were not retracted. I did recognize the fake in 10 Minutes by numerous inconsistent things and numbers that did not add up and did not make sense at all. None of the reviewers apparently did. Just when people tried to reproduce the results and failed were some question asked. But as I said, no consequences for blatant scientific misconduct by several people. For me, this nearly cost me my PhD as my advisor was not even capable of understanding the fake after I explained it to him in detail and somehow though they were doing something vastly superior to my work. While the low-point of my scientific work, it made me understand that most so-called "scientists" do not qualify for that distinction.

"Say yur prayers, yuh flea-pickin' varmint!" -- Yosemite Sam