The challenges of reporting on academic papersTuesday 11 March 2014 20.04 By Will Goodbody
By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent
The latest controversy to hit the world of academic publishing is a curious tale. On 29th January, the respected international journal, Nature, published a paper by Japanese and US scientists, which claimed a significant breakthrough in the manufacturing of adult stem cells. The team’s research asserted that they had found a way to reprogramme mature animal cells into an embryonic state by shocking them in acid. The implication was that if this STAP method could be replicated in humans, it would usher in a whole new era of regenerative medicine, potentially providing a means of reversing some of the effects of the most serious degenerative diseases and conditions. Put simply, it seemed like a big deal.
As you would expect, such apparently significant news was seized upon by media around the world, who used the well worn clichés of science journalism to underline the importance of the development. We in RTÉ were among the thousands who reported the story, having first run it past some experts in the field, and taken comfort from the fact it had been published by Nature, one of the biggest and most trusted peer-reviewed journals around. In summary, the interpretation of the scientists we spoke to was, if it is correct, the paper is big news. But the test would be whether other researchers could replicate it and whether it would work as effectively in human cells – a development likely to be a long way off.
Like most science stories in the era of 24 hour news, it proved a one day wonder. And within hours I and the other science journalists around the world had moved onto the next big thing. But for scientists working in the field, the story was just beginning. They quickly set about analysing the paper and trying to replicate the findings in their labs. And before long, questions were being raised. Some scientists claimed they had identified issues with the data and images used in the paper. Others, that they were encountering problems replicating the method successfully.
The chorus of scepticism grew steadily throughout February. While the authors stood their ground, the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan where lead author, Haruko Obokata, is based launched an investigation. Nature also said issues had been brought to its attention and it was conducting an investigation. Then yesterday the matter took a further twist, when one of the co-authors, Professor Teruhiko Wakayama from Japan’s University of Yamanashi, called for the paper to be withdrawn from publication, as he said it was no longer clear “what is right”.
It would be foolish to prejudge the outcome of all those investigations. A number of leading stem cell facilities around the world are still working on replicating the results and it may prove that the original research stacks up. The RIKEN Center is a world renowned centre of excellence and Nature is a highly reputable publisher, with a strong record of getting it right.
But regardless, the issue once again shines a spotlight on the world of academic journals and the peer-review process through which they are edited. It also highlights the challenges faced by journalists, who must report on these papers every day. It is next to impossible for us in the media to verify for certain the veracity of the claims being made in such journals. Instead we rely heavily on the editorial rigour and long-term credibility of the established peer-review journals, for whom sloppy mistakes or in the worst case scenario fraudulent results can prove hugely embarrassing. We can ask independent experts in the field for an opinion on findings and claims being made in papers. But in the final analysis those comments remain opinions, until such time as those commentators have a chance to probe them in the lab themselves.
It’s a tricky challenge, and one which underlines the importance of science journalists putting every new “discovery”, “breakthrough” and “ground-breaking” development in context.
Let’s hope, however, that for the good of human health this particular controversy proves unfounded, and the results prove correct. Stem cell based medicine offers huge promise and hope for millions who suffer. And this research would undoubtedly unlock the door to a better future.