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Differentiating the Good from the Bad in Stem Cell Research

stem cell transplant
Source: Flickr user Tareq Salahuddin

When it comes to stem cell research and treatments, consumers are often considered to be the group most likely to be taken advantage of by snakeoil salesmen. However, having your MD or PhD does not guarantee immunity to the tricks of scam artists, especially in the competitive, financially-motivated world of research publishing. Thankfully, a few organizations and companies are coming up with ways to make sure the best information gets into the hands of those who need it.

A recent report in the Health section of the NYTimes reveals how an increasing number of pay-to-publish journals are taking advantage of research scientists to the point of outright fraud. This explosion was noted in 2010, when Paul Sanberg and Cesar Borlongan published a report on the proliferation of stem cell journals. They indicated that one reason to be cautious of the trend is that “stem cell research is one of the most entrepreneurial areas of medical science;” consequently, careful scrutiny is needed to ensure that novice entrepreneurial publishers adhere to high standards of both research and peer review. The risk for exploitation is high, for both consumers and researchers.

What is contributing to the massive expansion of pay-to-publish online stem cell journals filled with dubious and even fraudulent reports? Two factors are financial gain and open access publishing.

The Lucrative Business of Stem Cell Research

The current journal business model (with its high publishing and subscription fees, relatively low production costs, and known status as liaison between scientists and the public) creates enormous incentives for savvy businesses to establish a journal and publish anything–for a fee. Particularly in the field of stem cell research, demand is huge for clinical treatments and not nearly enough evidence support all the claims of various companies and health providers. Patients desperate to treat their chronic or terminal ailments are perfect targets for exploitation by hucksters. Millions of dollars are spent every year on stem cell ‘treatments’ that scam and sometimes injure patients all over the globe, from Russia to Mexico to China to Ukraine. Even basic science researchers cannot be trusted: a research report published at the end of last year by a Japanese stem cell lab was quickly determined to be fraud.

sucking up stem cells
Source: Flickr user kurtislizandchauncey

This is not to say that all stem cell treatment options are ineffective or scams. Anyone who has suffered from and been cured of Leukemia might be aware that bone marrow transplants utilize the power of stem cells to save lives. The promise of stem cell research is so grand and far-reaching that governments, both state and federal, spend billions of dollars every year to further research and clinical application. A ballot initiative in California that passed in 2004 promised $3 billion over a 10-year period and launched the creation of multi-million dollar stem cell and regenerative medicine institutes all over the state. Despite legal battles that have occasionally made it all the way the to the supreme court, the federal government spent nearly $1.185 billion on research related to stem cells in 2012 alone. And public interest shows no signs of waning; indeed, research by Shinya Yamanaka on induced pluripotent stem cell technology earned him a Nobel prize last fall and brought even more notoriety to the field.

So how can consumers and researchers sort the wheat from the chaff and avoid exploitation by disingenuous companies and fraudulent researchers? One solution has been to push for more transparency in research publishing and equalize access to information to all. But, as a Nature article just last month pointed out, when open access publishing is conducted irresponsibly it can have a dark side.

Hidden Costs of Open Access

One catalyst for this kind of hucksterism has been the push for open access publishing. In its purest form, open access publishing attempts to make scientific research and literature universally accessible. It is worth noting that most peer-review is conducted by volunteers, and yet mainstream journal publishing is a billion-dollar revenue industry that is built on an editorial prerogative, which at top journals can mean that scientific rigor is traded for cutting edge ideas, too often resulting in disappointingly high retraction rates. This has resulted in a huge (and increasingly successful) push for open access: a more-affordable route to publication that tears down the wall of editorial discretion and allows anyone thirsty for knowledge to see the results of research at no cost to them.

guest publication
Source: Flickr user Tobias von der Haar

The push for open access and the boom of the stem cell field has opened up the market for pay-for-service entrepreneurs to come along and expand the publishing field. One report details at least 34 new stem cell journals appearing since 2004, flooding the market with more research than scientists know how to handle. Some see these new journals as a welcome opportunity for smaller-scale research labs who have been pushed out of big name journals due to unfair reviewer or editorial discretion. Others feel that these publications have relaxed the standards of scientific rigor to fill their journal pages–and coffers–regardless of the quality of the contributed research.

Even more troubling is the notion that what is published in presumably reputable, high impact journals can often times not be reproduced. Just last year it was reported that the world’s largest biotechnology firm, Amgen, was only able to reproduce 11% of selected published reports. Similarly, last year Bayer Healthcare reported that its scientists were only able to reproduce 25% of published findings in cardiovascular disease, cancer and women’s health. While interest is keen in understanding the problem of reproducibility in medical research publishing, Brian Nosek’s comments from last year remain apropos: “‘Published’ and ‘true’ are not synonyms.”

Solutions on the Horizon

Researchers and consumers have a mutual interest in distinguishing the good research from the bad. The problem is that this is very difficult to do in a field as large as stem cell biology. In response, several groups have been trying to solve this problem from different perspectives, both from within the field and from outside of it.

preparing stem cells
Source: Flickr user UC Davis College of Engineering

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), the largest community of stem cell research scientists, has established a website dedicated to informing the public on what can and cannot be trusted in the field. This includes a patient handbook to help them evaluate stem cell treatments they may be considering as well as a primer on how published science becomes medicine. Replete with a FAQ page and videos from experts in the field, the ISSCR website is an attempt to arm the public with knowledge so that they may be protected from shady businesses selling unsupported stem cell treatments. This project has clear benefits for initiated consumers who are doing their research, but it does not address the problem of distinguishing good research from bad research on the publishing side.

On that front, other groups are spearheading attempts to change the way science publishing is done. Science Exchange, a company out of Palo Alto, wants to reward those scientists who publish reproducible work. By using resources to repeat published experiments, Science Exchange hopes to bring reliable and consistently reproducible studies to the forefront of the research community even if they aren’t published in the highest-profile journals. However, their current model is opt-in and significantly limited by available funding.

journallab_logoAnother exciting approach is finally bringing open access publishing full circle to complement it with open access annotation. Journal Lab, a venture out of San Francisco, aims to be the site where published research findings are openly annotated and discussed by the community. Journal Lab has begun aggregating the opinions of the stem cell research community on papers published in the field, hoping to help the cream rise to the top through a system of open peer review.

It is a brave new world for research publishing, and successful symbiosis among scientists, publishers, and the general public will require a larger degree of open access participation. Focusing our efforts on rewarding reproducible science and maintaining robust conversations about the published literature in an appropriate forum will have a profoundly positive impact on the future of research, publishing, and, ultimately, health. May the best science win.

(Hi everyone! This is Anne from Mad Art Lab, hopping across the network to share this post with you! Full disclosure: In March I started volunteering with Journal Lab. This article was conceived of and written by the Journal Lab team, with major props to Matthew Cook for doing the bulk of the research and writing.)

Anne S

Anne Sauer is an atheist with an appetite for science, good food, and making connections between the two. She is currently pursuing her MBA in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. Her favorite foods are salted caramel ice cream and chicken tikka masala. You can find her on twitter @aynsavoy.

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