The ghosts of HeLa: How cell line misidentification contaminates the scientific literature

PLoS One. 2017 Oct 12;12(10):e0186281. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0186281. eCollection 2017.


While problems with cell line misidentification have been known for decades, an unknown number of published papers remains in circulation reporting on the wrong cells without warning or correction. Here we attempt to make a conservative estimate of this 'contaminated' literature. We found 32,755 articles reporting on research with misidentified cells, in turn cited by an estimated half a million other papers. The contamination of the literature is not decreasing over time and is anything but restricted to countries in the periphery of global science. The decades-old and often contentious attempts to stop misidentification of cell lines have proven to be insufficient. The contamination of the literature calls for a fair and reasonable notification system, warning users and readers to interpret these papers with appropriate care.

MeSH terms

  • Biomedical Research / methods
  • Biomedical Research / standards
  • Cell Line / classification*
  • HeLa Cells
  • Humans
  • Periodicals as Topic
  • Research / standards*

Grants and funding

The authors received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (, under grant agreement no. 665926. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.