Accepted Paper:

The Power of Social Media in Advancing Cutting-Edge Science  


Mianna Meskus (Tampere University)
Luca Marelli (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)
Giuseppe Alessandro D'Agostino (European Institute of Oncology)

Paper short abstract:

Through a recent case of scientific misconduct in Japanese stem cell research (STAP cells), this paper suggests we have entered an age of accelerated ‘virtual witnessing’ in biomedical discovery. We argue that this affects the sociotechnical expectations but also the traditional moral economy of science.

Paper long abstract:

Attaining clinical translation in stem cell science requires a supply of consistent and safe-enough biological sources. Therefore high social and economic expectations are placed on basic research and its capacity to provide reprogramming technologies that can yield high-quality stem cells. This paper studies a recent case in stem cell research where political expectations, the closed peer-review-based moral economy of science and new social media-based action entangled in an unprecedented way. In 2014 Dr. Haruko Obokata and her co-authors caused a global media storm when they published two papers in Nature on what they claimed was a surprisingly simple method of reprogramming cells, called the stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP). To the dismay of many, the case evolved into a full-blown data fabrication scandal and both papers were retracted. Japanese stem cell-centered science policy provides one perspective to make sense of how cutting-edge research could engender such conduct. To fully understand the case, however, the role of social media has to be analyzed alongside its sociotechnical context. The international research community contributed on, a blog run by stem cell scientist Paul Knoepfler, and PubPeer, an online journal club, to expose data fabrication and to confirm the irreproducibility of the sensational new method. Our paper shows that we have entered what could be termed the age of accelerated 'virtual witnessing' (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985). We suggest that web-based forums can reshape the traditional moral economy of science and, directly or indirectly, also the translational landscape of biomedical research.

Panel T031
Topographies of clinical translation: charting novel sociotechnical landscapes within and around biomedical research.