Journal Editor Retracts Paper on Sperm Made From Stem Cells

A paper that made international headlines earlier this month is causing headaches for its authors. Late last week several German media outlets reported that the paper, which claimed to demonstrate how sperm could be made from human embryonic stem cells, had been retracted following charges of plagiarism. But the journal that published the paper hadn’t made any formal announcement until last night.

The paper, published online by Stem Cells and Development on 8 July with Karim Nayernia of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom as the corresponding author, had already received some criticism from other experts; Dr Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, for example, was quoted by The Independent as saying: "As a sperm biologist of 20 years' experience, I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells produced ... can be accurately called 'Spermatozoa.' "

The paper’s problems soon got much worse. Graham Parker, editor-in-chief of Stem Cells and Development, told ScienceInsider that he received an email on 10 July from the editors of another journal, Biology of Reproduction, claiming that two paragraphs from Nayernia paper’s introduction were copied without attribution from a 2007 review article by Makoto Nagano of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, that was published in their journal. Surprisingly, Parker says, those introductory paragraphs describe previous work done by the authors of the new paper, raising questions about why such a passage would be plagiarized. Parker emailed Nayernia and the other paper’s authors asking for an explanation. “My hope was that a genuine mistake had occurred,” Parker said in an email to ScienceInsider.

Parker says Nayernia told him the offending text was inserted by a postdoctoral fellow. But Parker says the explanation he received was not consistent with an innocent mistake. “Once I had established that the suggested reason for the text's inclusion was not being substantiated I decided to retract the paper” on 21 July, Parker says.

Nayernia has not yet responded to ScienceInsider’s queries on the matter. But German media quote him saying he hopes to publish the paper in Stem Cells and Development with a revised introduction.

The paper’s final fate is apparently still in flux. Another coauthor, Wolfgang Engel of the University of Goettingen in Germany, says that the data in the paper had not been questioned and he thought the journal had accepted the revised introduction. 

Parker, however, told ScienceInsider that his decision was final. A retraction statement was posted last night appended to the online version of the paper.