Sperm Limits

The "sperm in a test-tube" reports are evidence of how scientific plagiarism is a serious and growing crime 

A gratifying blizzard of headlines greeted the announcement in July that a team at Newcastle University had created sperm cells in a test tube. Within days the opinion-formers were busy, concocting columns about the redundancy of men. “Chaps doomed as lab grow sperm” reported the Sun, following up with a feature by Germaine Greer that stood up for men, despite their new pointlessness. They were good for “manoeuvring wheelie bins and flipping burgers on thebarbie”, Germaine ventured wittily.

A good deal less ink was spilled when, two weeks later, the claim was retracted. So far as I can determine, only the London Evening Standard and the Mirror reported this. Infertile readers of every other paper remain in ignorance that the hope held out to them has been withdrawn, at least temporarily.

The “sperm in a test-tube” was a classic example of the herd-like behaviour of the media when tempted by a juicy tale. The claim originated from a team led by Professor Karim Nayernia and was published in Stem Cells and Development, a journal that promises “instant online publication” within three days of acceptance. The paper reported success in persuading embryonic stem cells to undergo meiosis, the process in which the cell divides and halves its number of chromosomes to become a reproductive cell.

In this case, haste got in the way of probity. A substantial chunk of the paper’s introduction had been lifted word for word from another paper, by another group, published in 2007.

Plagiarism is a serious and growing scientific crime, although the offence in this case was not extreme. The preamble but not the core of the paper had been cut and pasted, or so it is claimed. A junior member of the team, Dr Jae Ho Lee, got the blame. But the editor-in-chief of the journal, Graham Parker, still believed the proper thing to do was to retract the paper as soon as he was told of the offence. 

By this time — such is the dizzying speed with which Stem Cells and Development goes about its business — a second version had been submitted with the offending paragraphs rewritten. But Professor Parker was unmoved. It remains unpublished.

The outcome is that neither version now exists for other researchers to read, which is a serious shame. Doubts had already been cast on the claims it made, principally by Dr Allen Pacey of the University of Sheffield, an expert on reproductive biology, who said the Newcastle lab’s products were too abnormal to be called sperm. But even if Dr Pacey is right, the Newcastle team had done something interesting. But what, exactly? Without the paper it is hard to tell.

Scientific fraud is increasing, and retractions have increased roughly tenfold in the past 20 years. Plagiarism is responsible for about a quarter of cases, and some journals now use special software to detect if authors have cheated in this way. But the numbers remain tiny — 95 retractions last year from 1.4 million papers published. Either scientists are very honest, or extremely hard to catch.

The episode probably tells us more about publishing than it does about science. Why the Newcastle team chose Stem Cells and Development, one of a stable of journals published by the US entrepreneur Mary Ann Liebert, is puzzling. It is possible the paper had been rejected by more prestigious journals. Maybe the journalists should have shown more scepticism: certainly, given the prominence of the original stories, the retraction deserved at least a mention.

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