The case of the former star plant scientist Olivier Voinnet is being quietly concluded. After now seven paper retractions, more than twice as many controversial corrections and after his misconduct was made official by the investigative commission of the ETH Zürich, the institutions, journals and a number of scientific peers are showing all the intention for this scandal to become quietly forgotten, as some kind of damage control. Some of them may have learned this lesson in research integrity and drawn consequences. Others: quite the opposite, which sends a dangerous message to the academic community and public about their attitude to problematic science.
Some weeks ago, the journal RNA has issued a controversial corrigendum where every single figure was “corrected” due to excessive data manipulation (Moissiard et al, 2007). And now, the elite journal Science has decided NOT to retract, but instead to correct a certain Voinnet paper (Deleris et al, 2006), despite earlier retraction decision by the investigative commission and the numerous data manipulations Voinnet now admits. Thus, Science editors have placed their authority above that of the scientist peers who were thoroughly examining Voinnet’s misconduct. This is so far the crown of a series of rather controversial corrections for Voinnet. The journal also corrects two other Voinnet papers (Navarro et al, 2006 and Dunoyer et al, 2010, the latter has been already corrected twice previously). With these two Errata in Science (here and here), it is Dunoyer who takes all responsibility for manipulated data.
More of this creative correcting, or “Voinnetting”, of further publications by the EMBO Gold Medalist Voinnet is to be expected.
For the background, please refer to my earlier reports published in Lab Times, in reverse chronological order:
After the Swiss ETH and the French CNRS concluded their investigations (which as I was told by one committee member , were “conducted independently”), the latter has decreed that Voinnet was not welcome in the French research anymore, while ETH interpreted the investigative report in its own way. Yes, Voinnet manipulated data. But he never actually faked it, merely excessively beautified, for reasons unknown even to himself. His research is therefore still reliable, even if the original data has occasionally been lost (sometimes, quite literally, in floods). Also the CNRS’ president Alain Fuchs quickly re-defined what fraudulent misconduct was: deliberate and proven invention or faking of data. Thus, according to ETH and CNRS, there never were any actual fraudulent intentions on Voinnet’s part, just a lot of gross negligence at data presentation. Inexplicable things, like purposefully Photoshop-manipulated “mock” figures regularly ending up as published research data. Officially at least, Voinnet was only sternly berated for his misconduct, placed under supervision and asked to be more careful when assembling figures next time.
Quietly correcting the literature
In most cases of Voinnet’s corrections, data manipulations were openly admitted by authors and offending figures were replaced with new ones. The recent mega-correction in the journal RNA for Moissiard et al, 2007, is such example of editorial creativity. I have contacted the editorial board of RNA and received this message from Elisa Izaurralde, director of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen: “we are taking your message very seriously and we are discussing amongst editors.”
As promised, I soon received an email statement from the editor-in-chief, Timothy Nilsen, who is also Director of the Center for RNA Molecular Biology at Case Western Reserve University, USA. It was the same message Nilsen delivered to RetractionWatch:
“The decision was made by me and only me without consultation with anyone at CNRS or ETH. Dr. Voinnet requested the opportunity to correct misrepresentations that were present in his 2007 paper. I granted that request because I believe that these sorts of things should be aired publicly in front of the scientific community and not anonymously or behind closed doors. It is up to the scientific community to make their own judgments regarding the credibility of the correction. The decision by RNA (me) in no way was intended to either explicitly or implicitly condone the actions of Dr. Voinnet”.
Nilsen added the P.S.:
“A full retraction of the work was neither proposed nor discussed”.
Similar to their colleagues elsewhere, Nilsen and other RNA editors apparently decided to allow such controversial corrigendum to remain standing, whatever message it sends to the scientific community, students and general public.
However, one initially corrected paper has been eventually retracted after all, due to further excessive data manipulations revealed by the anonymous PubPeer user “Junk Science” after the correction appeared (Voinnet et al., Plant J., 2003). In between, Voinnet’s former PhD supervisor, David Baulcombe, has hinted the intention to retract it . This paper made it to number 4 of the RetractionWatch list of the Top 10 most highly cited retracted papers, with almost 900 citations. Number 5, clocking almost 800 citations, is taken by Voinnet as well, with the retracted Brigneti et al., 1998 paper in the EMBO Journal. This highly cited paper was originally requested by the ETH commission report to be corrected, but EMBO J however took a different view, given the extent of data manipulations. The same ETH commission report somehow failed to even mention, never mind investigate, a certain now retracted study from Voinnet’s ETH lab (Ciaudo et al., PLoS Genetics, 2013). That paper, featuring another current ETH professor as first author, was also retracted after a controversial corrigendum, plus an editorial expression of concern.
Three other Voinnet studies in EMBO J (Hamilton et al, 2002; Haas et al, 2008; Schott et al, 2012) were corrected despite admitted manipulations, due to the journal’s policy to weigh the contribution of the manipulated data to the main thesis of the paper (i.e., where “the central conclusions of a research paper are not fundamentally affected”). Numerous other Voinnet publications, anonymously flagged for potential data manipulation on PubPeer, are seemingly completely forgotten, especially those published in Cell, where such kind of whistle-blowing is frowned upon.
The now corrected Deleris et al paper in Science is particularly outstanding since it was agreed to be retracted together with 4 further Voinnet publications, by the ETH commission and, seemingly, by Voinnet himself. The ETH report originally decreed:
“Although it is obviously the journal’s prerogative, the former (category 2) papers, particularly those containing well documented intentional manipulations (PLoS Pathogens 2013 9:e1003435; Plant Cell 2004 16: 1235; Science 2006 313: 68; PNAS 2006 103: 19593 and EMBO J 2010 29: 1699), should be retracted through OV’s requests as being non-factual, irrespectively of whether the reported observations have been reproduced by others.”
Others journals have pulled the non-factual papers, yet Science for some reason eagerly used the kindly provided loophole and corrected the paper instead. Did the editors once again decide themselves, blindly trusting Voinnet’s genius? Or were his co-authors or other influential peers involved in such controversial decisions? Anyone’s guess.
James Carrington, Head of the Donald Danforth Plant Center in Missouri, was a key collaborator on this and another now corrected Voinnet publication in Science. He has been the first major co-author to publicly distance himself from Voinnet, by condemning the manipulations and advising retractions. In regard to the current controversial correction of their common 2006 Science paper, Carrington insists in his email to me that he has “not reviewed any materials related to the paper or the proposed correction since about past 6 months ago”. He did not comment of the journal’s decision, but added:
“Like I said before, the final decision to allow correction, as opposed to force a retraction, rests with the journal after they review relevant data”.
The current correction notice to Deleris et al Science paper is rather straightforward about Voinnet’s data manipulations. In the customary manner of Voinnetting, manipulated data is simply replaced with new one, with a recurring insistence that “the correction has no bearing on the original conclusions”. In what seems as an ironic nod to God’s Final Message to His Creation, Voinnet and his co-authors apologise for the inconvenience:
“…mistakes were made by Olivier Voinnet, the corresponding author, during the final stages of figure mounting. The original lab book data provided to the editors of Science showed that these errors did not alter the data in any material way that could be construed to benefit the results and their conclusions. Olivier Voinnet takes the full responsibility for the mistakes. All the authors have approved the following corrections and wish to apologize deeply for the inconvenience caused”.
Plant scientist Sophien Kamoun, another peer of Voinnet and professor at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK (same institution where Voinnet did his PhD under Baulcombe), expressed his exasperation with the journals’ attitude:
“I’m not that surprised. Journals tend to be conservative with errata and retractions. I believe they owe it to the community to be more transparent about such decisions”.
No PhD, no professorship?
A number of figures from early publications of Voinnet as PhD student at The Sainsbury Laboratory were now officially admitted as deliberately manipulated, by Voinnet himself. Not only this, the exactly same figures were found in his PhD thesis, submitted to the University of East Anglia (UEA) in 2001. Of course it is common standard for PhD students to use same figures for a publication as well as the doctorate thesis. The problem starts when these figures turn out manipulated, which, theoretically, may prompt the university to revoke the dishonestly acquired doctorate. This outcome would be disastrous for Voinnet, also because a PhD degree is an absolutely necessary requirement for a faculty professorship with any university, including ETH. The whole edifice of damage control might therefore collapse, were Voinnet to lose his PhD degree due to a manipulated doctoral thesis. Unless of course, Voinnetting might prove possible even with a PhD thesis.
I received hints from reliable sources to assume that UEA has initiated such an investigation already in summer 2015. Yet in reply to my two inquiries to UEA, in August and November 2015, I received same statement under Freedom of Information Act: “We can neither confirm nor deny any of the information you have requested is held by the University”. It is puzzling why UEA is so secretive about the existence of the investigation. Given the publicly known facts, it might appear somewhat inappropriate for them NOT to initiate it. In any case, if Voinnet thesis analysis really was underway, it should be over by now or end very soon. The allotted time period to conclude the investigation, as specified in the UEA Procedure, section 4.9, is “80 working days of its start”.
Elsewhere, my attempts to obtain information ended in threats of criminal persecution. When the ETH report was published in July 2015, I approached the members of the investigative commission by email with some questions. Since two of them were ETH employees, I was requested by Franziska Schmid, Head of News & Media Relations at ETH, not to contact them again. She wrote:
“ETH employees are federal officials and as such are subject to professional, industrial and administrative secrecy. In Swiss criminal law […] an incitement to secrecy violation can be criminally persecuted, according to Art. 320 STGB”.
I took this as a hint that the handling of the Voinnet case by the ETH became a federal state secret, for the investigation of which I might according to the cited criminal law even be imprisoned as a spy in Switzerland.
The legend of the lone manipulator
ETH commission has also decreed that Voinnet’s laboratory at the CNRS Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes is to be dissolved; he was to concentrate his research in his main ETH lab. Indeed, Voinnet’s name does not feature in Strasbourg anymore, the official lab head is Patrice Dunoyer alone. On first glance, this seems an excellent career development for Dunoyer, who admitted to personally performing data manipulations which led to retraction of 3 publications (Dunoyer et al., Plant Cell, 2004; Dunoyer et al., EMBO J, 2010 and Sansregret et al., PLoS Pathogens, 2013). Also two current Science corrections (Navarro et al, 2006 and Dunoyer et al, 2010) state:
“Patrice Dunoyer, who assembled the figures, takes full responsibility for these mistakes”.
There is more evidence that Voinnet was not the lone bumbling perpetrator as which ETH presents him. In regard to the PLoS Pathogens retraction, first author Raphaël Sansregret, former PhD student of Kamal Bouarab at the Université de Sherbrooke, Canada, shed light onto several interesting aspects of his collaborative publication With Voinnet. In his email to me, framed by a torrent of vulgar expletives directed at my person, Sansregret admitted to scientific misconduct of his own. He openly stated that the claim of the retraction notice, that he and Bouarab “have found the cognate [gel loading control] and the loadings are comparable”, was not true. Instead, as Sansregret revealed: “I did not find the corresponding loading control, it was lost”. However, what broke the neck of his paper was the heavily manipulated Figure 6. Dunoyer early on admitted his responsibility for its unintentional publication in his comment on PubPeer. Later, Voinnet blamed an unnamed Master student for producing this “mock” figure, as first mentioned in the ETH report and then officially, in the retraction notice. There were no Master students from Voinnet’s lab featuring as authors or acknowledged in that paper. There were however two master students from the Bouarab lab listed as authors. One of them, Vanessa Dufour, adamantly rejected any responsibility for this figure in her message to me, also on behalf of her former colleague, Mathieu Langlois. Finally, Sansregret claimed in his aforementioned email:
“The only authors involved with the making of this figure are Olivier Voinnet and Patrice Dunoyer. The others haven’t even come close to that figure”.
Better not to ask
As sources indicated, Dunoyer was investigated by the CNRS together with Voinnet. CNRS gagging order is even tighter than that by ETH: in France, not even the investigative report was released to public. It therefore remains officially secret, what the punitive measures for Dunoyer were supposed to be. Unofficially though I was informed by a named source from the University of Strasbourg, that Dunoyer was excluded from CNRS employment for a period of 1 year, of which however 11 months were suspended. This would be in agreement with CNRS official rules of misconduct sanctioning of category 3 (same category under which his boss Voinnet was excluded from CNRS service for 2 years). Therefore, Dunoyer was only made to take a one-month unpaid vacation and is possibly now back managing his lab at IBMP.
From the publicly available ETH report, one gathers that all Swiss Voinnet co-authors were left out of the investigation. Not a single one of Voinnet’s co-authors, even among those who work at ETH, was ever interviewed, let alone investigated. Not a single recorded conversation with their own professor Constance Ciaudo, former postdoc of Voinnet’s, who took responsibility for data issues in a retracted paper (Ciaudo et al., PLoS Genetics, 2013) as well as duplicated bands in a corrected one (Ciaudo et al., PLoS Genetics, 2009). Not even Voinnet’s current lab members were interrogated, even those who are first authors on papers officially or possibly containing data manipulations: Guillaume Moissiard (of the retracted Moissiard & Voinnet, PNAS, 2006), Florence Jay, Arturo Mari-Ordonez and Gregory Schott. Did they really have nothing of value at all to contribute to this investigation?
The professorial pariah
Voinnet has largely taken the blame onto himself, but he retained his professorship at ETH, and he may be able to keep it, depending on the outcome of the UEA investigation into his PhD thesis, which may or may not be ongoing. It is quite likely though that Voinnet’s academic respectability in the scientific community has suffered significantly and irreparably.
A strong evidence for this is that several Voinnet’s invitations to conferences were revoked. SwissPlant Symposium in Leukerbad, Switzerland, in January 2015; MicroSymposium on small RNAs at IMBA, Vienna, in May 2015; EMBL Symposium The Mobile Genome, in Heidelberg, Germany, in September 2015: his participation as invited speaker was cancelled for all of those. At least for the latter, the invitation was revoked by the organizers in light of the evidence of his scientific misconduct.
Voinnet however did participate in person at the Keystone Conference “RNA Silencing in Plants” in February 2015. Also the organizers of the 2016 Keystone meeting, “Small RNA Silencing: Little Guides, Big Biology”, were most interested to invite this controversial scientist to their conference, despite the already published evidence of his misconduct by the ETH investigative commission and, at that time, two retractions. Phillip Zamore (University of Massachusetts), Yukihide Tomari (University of Tokyo) and Mihaela Zavolan (University of Basel) still maintained their invitation and never replied to my inquiry on the rationale of their choice of Voinnet over a selection of available and misconduct-untainted scientists in the field of small RNA research. It took an executive action by Jane Peterson, President & CEO of Keystone Symposia on Molecular & Cellular Biology, to dis-invite Voinnet from this conference in August 2015.
Since then, Voinnet’s name does not feature on the official conference programs anymore. There have not been any new publications, neither from his large ETH lab, not from his former Strasbourg lab (now officially run by Dunyoer). Despite Voinnet’s proven data manipulations and misconduct (allegedly performed unintentionally and in good faith), he remains full professor at ETH. In fact, Professor Voinnet also remains “scientific elite” member of the highly prestigious French Académie des Sciences, where he is supposed to promote “the advancement of science” and to advise French “government authorities”. Indeed, why not? Voinnet’s main research findings, in particular in Science, are still fully valid, as ETH and everyone else involved, made sure to emphasize. Some scientists however, doubt their reliability and reproducibility.
Update 22.01.2015 22:15 I have received information that Patrice Dunoyer was sentenced by CNRS to 1 year exclusion, of which 11 months were suspended. He therefore was banned without salary for one month only. The text above has been amended to include this. -LS
Addendum: Voinnet’s literature corrections:
- Brigneti G.et al., EMBO J (1998):
- Voinnet, O.et al., Plant J. 33: 949-56 (2003):
- Dunoyer P.et al., Plant Cell 16: 1235-50 (2004):
- Moissiard G. and Voinnet O., Nat.l Acad. Sci.USA 103 (51): 19593 (2006).
- Dunoyer P.et al., EMBO J (2010):
- Ciaudo C.et al., PLoS Genetics 9(11): e1003791 (2013):
- Sansregret R.et al., PLoS Pathogens 1(9): e1005207 (2013):
- Ruiz MT et al, Plant Cell 10: 937–946 (1998):
- Voinnet O, et al., Nat.l Acad. Sci.USA 96:14147–14152; (1999):
- Hamilton A.et al., EMBO J (2002):
- Dunoyer P.et al., Plant J. 29: 555-67 (2002):
- Parizotto E.A.et al., Genes & Development 18: 2237-42 (2004):
http://genesdev.cshlp.org/content/29/4/465.full 2nd Correction: http://genesdev.cshlp.org/content/30/10/1251.long
- Dunoyer P.et al., Nature Genetics 38: 258-63 (2006):
- Navarro L. et al., Science 312(5772): 436-439 (2006)
- Deleris A. et al, Science 313(5783): 68-71 (2006)
- Moissiard et al, RNA 13: 1268–1278 (2007)
- Haas G. et al, EMBO J 27, 2102-2112 (2008)
- Ciaudo C.et al., PLoS Genetics 5(8): e1000620 (2009):
- Dunoyer P. et al., Science 328 (5980), 912 (2010):
- Bennasser Y et al., Nat. Struct. Mol. Biol. 18, 323–327 (2011): http://www.nature.com/nsmb/journal/v18/n3/extref/nsmb.1987-S1.pdf
- Jay F, et al. (2011) PLoS Pathog 7(5): e1002035. http://journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article?id=10.1371/journal.ppat.1005627
- Brodersen P.et al., Proc. Nat.l Acad. Sci. USA 109: 1778-83 (2012):http://www.pnas.org/content/112/19/E2554.full
- Gibbings D. et al, Nature Cell Biology 14, 1314–1321 (2012)http://www.nature.com/ncb/journal/v17/n8/full/ncb3208.html
- Schott G. et al, EMBO J 31, 2553-2565 (2012)http://emboj.embopress.org/content/early/2015/08/20/embj.201570070
- Boccara M.,et al., PLoS Pathogens 10(1): e1003883 (2014):http://journals.plos.org/plospathogens/article?id=10.1371/journal.ppat.1004814