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November 20, 2010

Watching the watchers

by Chris Kamel

Because of some vocal opposition, stem cell research is no stranger to controversy. Usually this comes in the form of protests or government lobbying, but Nature News is reporting the story of a group that is trying to discredit the scientists themselves.

The anonymous group, calling themselves Stem Cell Watch, has sent out emails calling into question published stem cell research and accusing authors of photo manipulation and fraud. Despite the anonymous accusations made outside the usual channels, the journals in question are looking into the matter and have found no evidence of wrongdoing and authors have been cleared. Allegations of fraud are no laughing matter and can be extremely damaging to a scientific career.

The scientific enterprise relies a great deal on trust - trust that researchers are reporting results truthfully, and trust that review and criticism is done in an honest way. Scrutiny and skepticism are essential to the process, but need to be done in good faith. Whether the Stem Cell Watch accusations are from a group with a particular stem cell agenda, or simply the result of overzealous students is unclear, what is clear is that they were neither accurate nor helpful. As UK stem cell researcher Robin Lovell-Badge puts it, "Although we don't want fraudulent work to be published, this group does not seem to have the skill or knowledge to make a fair assessment."

This kind of uninformed criticism and indiscriminant accusation works against the interests of open and trustworthy science. It also highlights the need for good stem cell research (and science in general) resources to counter this type of misinformation. We shouldn't need watchdog groups for the watchdog groups.

Stem Cell Watch is not associated with the The International Cellular Medicine Society website of the same name.



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