That’s quite the racket

Nature Biotechnology published a rather startling paper: DNA-guided genome editing using the Natronobacterium gregoryi Argonaute. It claims “that the Natronobacterium gregoryi Argonaute (NgAgo) is a DNA-guided endonuclease suitable for genome editing in human cells,” which would make it an alternative to CRISPR/Cas9, and would make the authors rich.

I don’t know any of the details, though, because it’s behind a paywall, and my university doesn’t have an institutional subscription (universities don’t automatically get every journal, and the ones we do get cost the institution an arm, a leg, a pound of flesh, and a bucket of blood). I could pay for it personally, but Nature would charge me $32 for a pdf. If you think about it, it’s quite the deal: the authors do all the research work and then pay for the privilege of publishing in a Nature journal, and then Nature charges readers to see it. The last part would be understandable if they charged a reasonable fee, but of course they don’t.

Imagine if the New York Times worked that way. They fire all their journalists, and tell them that their new model is that if they’re very, very good they can continue to be published in the NYT if they pay Arthur Sulzberger for the privilege. Also, Arthur will change subscription policies: it’ll cost you $10,000/year to subscribe, but you could also just pay for individual articles. Yeah, you’ll pay $32 each week to read David Brooks.

But it’s all moot anyway! The paper has been retracted — no one could replicate the results. Or, at least, there’s an editorial expression of concern.

Guess what? I can’t read that one either. $32. Both the article and its ‘retraction’ are still available for a fee.

This is an amazing business model. Publish a tantalizing paper that is crap, charge people to read it. Publish an announcement that said tantalizing paper is crap, charge people to read it. What we need next is an editorial justifying the science journal’s predatory exploitation, charge people to read it.

(via Neuroskeptic)

Matt Herron sent along the paper and the “expression of concern”, if you were curious about the 3 paragraphs you could get for $32.

Editorial Expression of Concern: DNA-guided genome editing using the Natronobacterium gregoryi Argonaute

Feng Gao, Xiao Z Shen, Feng Jiang, Yongqiang Wu & Chunyu Han

Nat. Biotechnol. 34, 768–773 (2016); published online 2 May 2016; addendum published after print 28 November 2016

The editors of Nature Biotechnology are issuing an editorial expression of concern regarding this article to alert our readers to concerns regarding the reproducibility of the original results. At this time, we are publishing the results of three groups ( that have tried to reproduce the results in the critical Figure 4 in the original paper by Han and colleagues, which demonstrates editing of endogenous genomic loci in mammalian cells. None of the groups observed any induction of mutations by NgAgo at any of the loci or under any of the conditions tested above the sensitivity of the assays used. Similar results have been recently reported by a different group of authors in Protein & Cell (doi:10.1007/s13238-016-0343-9).

We are in contact with the authors, who are investigating potential causes for the lack of reproducibility. The authors have been informed of this statement. While the investigations are ongoing, Chunyu Han and Xiao Z. Shen agree with this editorial expression of concern. Feng Gao, Feng Jiang and Yongqiang Wu do not feel that it is appropriate at this time.

We will update our readers once these investigations are complete.


  1. davidnangle says

    I’ve got the secret to their financial success. (I’ve done dozens of studies… but if you have to ask, you can’t afford to read them.)

    Who am I to make that claim? Gonna cost ‘ya.

  2. blf says

    This is entirely from a very vague and incomplete memory† but isn’t there a movement afoot for journals to publish all retractions “publicly” or deposit them in a (publicly-accessible) archive? Apologies if I am conflating or confusing with other, similar-ish, “movements”, such as(?) publishing negative results, archiving data, and so on.

      † And a decent vin rosé — it’s sunny and and… and doing bugger-all else…

  3. FossilFishy (NOBODY, and proud of it!) says

    Huh, and here I thought the local wild game farm had the best business model. They have a restaurant where you can also buy a bucket of grain to feed to *their* animals. Brilliant!

    Mind you, it is worth it if you’ve never been up close to an ostrich. They are astoundingly big. I have a photo of my then four year old daughter sitting on my shoulders holding the grain at her head height. The male ostrich is bringing its head *down* to feed.

    You also get a real sense of the dinosaur nature of birds from them. There is nothing welcoming, cuddly, or even vaguely mammalian about them. I reckon all you can see in their eyes is boiling rage at the fact that they no longer have teeth to savage us jumped up apes.

  4. komarov says

    We will update our readers once these investigations are complete.

    Wild stab in the dark: Both the update and the updated paper / retraction / both will cost 32$ each to access.

    Matt Herron sent along the paper and the “expression of concern”

    But isn’t that stealing?! That must be nearly as terrible as stealing music: taking the food out of the mouths of struggling artists scientists publishers. After all, where would we be if not for science publishers who can charge us 30+$ for a paper and three figures for the average undergraduate introductory textbook? Civilisation would cease to function, no doubt.