The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo was found guilty of “negligence in handling and presenting data” in her publications by the European life science society EMBO; she and her doctoral advisor Manel Esteller also had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics 41, 365–370, 2009). Despite further image irregularities in his other publications (where Melo was not a co-author), Esteller was tasked by his Spanish research institution IDIBELL to investigate himself. As Principal Investigator (PI) he cannot be responsible to vouchsafe data integrity in his own papers, decreed IDIBELL leadership (of which he is actually part of).
The French plant scientist Olivier Voinnet still enjoys full institutional protection of his Swiss university ETH Zürich, despite his self-admitted misconduct. However, before he acknowledged to have been excessively manipulating data in his own papers, his subordinate researcher Patrice Dunoyer accepted sole responsibility. When the first retraction (of currently seven) hit, the retraction notice of Dunoyer et al., Plant Cell 2004 read: “We wish to state that the first author, Patrice Dunoyer, was solely involved in generating the erroneous figure panels”. Dunoyer’s reward for such loyalty: despite a confidential CNRS investigation against him, he was also allowed to remain in his permanent position as group leader.
Most recently, Cell Press was faced with a dilemma. It was contacted by a junior author, Yao-Yun Liang, who admitted to have “manipulated the experiments to achieve predetermined results” in the papers in Cell and Molecular Cell. It is safe to assume this whistleblower also provided solid evidence, since Cell Press issued two Expressions of Concern (here and here). The last author, Xin-Hua Feng from Baylor College of Medicine in USA, denied everything “citing concerns about Liang’s motives and credibility”. Yet, this being Cell of Elsevier, the publisher simply tasked Feng with investigating himself. He was invited to reproduce the flagged experiments elsewhere, presumably followed by some “Voinnetting”, namely to use those to correct his manipulated paper. Unfortunately, I did not succeed reaching out to Liang, also his past collaborators did not know his current whereabouts. Feng, unsurprisingly, did not reply at all.
One can continue listing ad nauseam examples of retractions, corrections and expressions of concern where a junior author was assigned the exclusive blame, while the PI was presented as a hapless victim. It seems labs all over the world are truly infested by ruthless scheming PhD students and postdocs, whose only goal in life is to bite the hand that feeds them. The innocent PI is guilty of nothing more than keeping such snakes at his honest bosom, this is at least how universities and journals like to publicly present the instances of research misconduct. No-one wants reputational damage or loss of funding to hit their faculty, or to lose important contributors of exciting research papers. However, the reality is often somewhat more complicated. Continue reading “A personal tale of scientific misconduct”