Plagiarism accusation hits stem-cell research.
A paper reporting the creation of sperm-like cells from human embryonic stem cells has been retracted by the editor of the journal Stem Cells and Development. The work had garnered headlines worldwide after being published three weeks ago (see 'Sperm-like cells made from human embryonic stem cells').
The journal's editor-in-chief Graham Parker says he took the radical step on 27 July because two paragraphs in the introduction of the paper, entitled 'In Vitro Derivation of Human Sperm from Embryonic Stem Cells',1 had been plagiarised from a 2007 review published in another journal, Biology of Reproduction.2
He had been alerted to the plagiarism on 10 July — three days after the article had been published online — by the editors of Biology of Reproduction. Parker says that the corresponding author, Karim Nayernia of the North East England Stem Cell Institute in Newcastle, UK, and the University of Newcastle, had failed to provide convincing evidence that the two paragraphs had been included in the submitted version of the manuscript by mistake.
The retraction has surprised even critics of the paper, who had complained that the work had been over-hyped. "If there is nothing else behind this, it seems a little harsh," says Harry Moore, co-director of the Centre for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield, UK.
The article reported that sperm precursor cells could be derived from human embryonic stem cells in vitro. These derived cells were able to divide and generate cells with just one set of chromosomes, characteristic of sperm. Although the text of the article modestly refers to these as "sperm-like cells" with "tail-like structures", its title, and the press release which accompanied its publication, refer baldly to human sperm.
"That raised hackles," says Moore. "With that claim the authors opened themselves to criticism, some of it unfair, because the paper did not in fact show that sperm had been derived."
Parker insists that there were no other problems with the paper other than the copied paragraphs. Along with five other editors of his journal, he nevertheless decided that because the paper included "an act of scientific misconduct, retraction was the correct course of action in this instance".
Nayernia declined to comment to Nature, but an official statement from the university says that the paper's original first author, Jae Ho Lee, a postdoc who has since left the university, was responsible for the plagiarism and has apologized to the authors. "No question has been raised about the science conducted or the conclusions of the research," according to the statement. "The name of Dr Lee has been removed from the first authorship," the statement continues. "The paper will now be submitted to another peer-reviewed academic journal."
The statement also says that the "correct version of the manuscript, upon the request of the journal's editor, had been immediately submitted to the journal during the process of proof reading".
The paper had been published online 'ahead of editing' to avoid undue delay, with proofreading happening after publication to correct textual or copy-editing errors, explains Parker. "But plagiarism can come to light at any point in the publishing process," he says. "Proofing isn't a magical stage that allows authors to correct any inappropriate acts."
Nayernia, K. et al. Stem Cells Dev. advance online publication doi:10.1089/scd.2009.0063 (2009).
Nagano, M. C. Biol. Reprod. 76, 546-551 (2007).
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Abbott, A. Editor retracts sperm-creation paper. Nature (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/news.2009.753