The Olivier Voinnet scandal of almost two decades-long research misconduct and data manipulations has reached its logical conclusion. The French plant pathogen researcher, and everyone who helped him manipulating and publishing dishonest (and occasionally retracted) papers was either forgiven or declared as fully reformed. The siRNA-co-discoverer Voinnet who, cynically put, was too big to fail, remained professor at ETH Zürich and kept his ERC funding. He is meanwhile back to publishing in exactly the same elite journals where he had to retract and correct papers for manipulations. Of all his “partners-in-crime”, only his dependent right-hand man (or sidekick) Patrice Dunoyer was ever investigated, and as punishment suspended for an entire month by his French employer CNRS. His lab was about to be dissolved, but the Nature Publishing Group came to rescue and accepted his paper (Incarbone et al 2017) just in the nick of time (it’s not even Dunoyer’s only recent publishing success, another one is Montavon et al 2017 in Nucleic Acids Research). The accompanying editorial in Nature Plants, written by the chief editor Chris Surridge can only be described as bizarre, and is titled: “Giving research a sporting chance“. Surridge, who apparently sees data manipulation as a professional sports in race with doping detectives, wrote:
“Dunoyer has been a long-time colleague and collaborator of Olivier Voinnert, and recently a number of their studies, three with Dunoyer as first author, have been retracted while a number more have had formal corrections published to address problems with presented data. However, these instances were investigated by the CNRS and Dunoyer served a temporary suspension as a result. We therefore treated the study we received as we would any other. It was accepted following two rounds of review, during which it was seen by four reviewers. The published paper contains substantial supplementary information (SI). Along with 10 additional figures, there are a further 12 pages presenting the raw data from which the presented figures have been assembled”.
Why Surridge misspelled Voinnet’s name as “Voinnert” is unclear, maybe he barely knows this French star academic and his Photoshop adventures, or maybe the Nature Plants Editor-in-Chief did so deliberately to trick the internet search results. His editorial is open access after all, unlike Dunyoer’s comeback-paper Incarbone et al 2017, which is paywalled, due to which data integrity sleuths will have some tough time getting access to it.
Dunoyer, a cheating sidekick of a cheater
Dunoyer’s entire research career was bound to Voinnet. He only obtained his own lab at the CNRS Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP) in Strasbourg, because Voinnet moved from there to hold a professorship at ETH Zürich in 2010, taking bulk of his lab personnel with him to Switzerland. Dunoyer stayed behind to run that lab as his master’s trusted custodian. In 2015, after the misconduct findings by ETH and CNRS, Voinnet was banned from CNRS for 2 years and forced to relinquish his Strasbourg lab. This made Dunoyer the official principal investigator of an inherited lab. That lab however was about to be dissolved in April 2017, in the wake of an evaluation travesty, as I exclusively reported. The current Nature Plants paper, accompanied by another one in Nucleic Acids Research (Montavon et al 2017) saved Dunoyer’s career and his misconduct-ridden IBMP from being ridiculed, or worse, defunded. It now makes sense why a CNRS senior executive wrote to me to call me an “idiot” after I reported about the Dunoyer lab dissolution.
The recent Dunoyer paper was published because the chief editor assumed if they make a cheating researcher provide original gel images, there will be no way he can ever manipulate data. This attitude is disarmingly naive, one really wonders if Surridge ever worked in a lab when getting his PhD in biophysics. No science is so easy to fake as the image-dependent life science is, especially when you have direct access to lab experiments and image acquisition. Nobody will ever find out what you actually loaded on your gels or how much of it, if you know how to do the gels and the controls and how to acquire the images “properly”. There won’t be even any need for Photoshop then, a recourse of dishonest group leaders stuck in the office without a “trusted” hand in the lab.
Normally of course, journal editors and reviewers must assume that the scientists acted honestly and correctly, when reviewing their manuscript. Only that we know it is rather different with Dunoyer. This Strasbourg-based CNRS researcher retracted no less than three papers as first author (Dunoyer et al, Plant Cell, 2004; Dunoyer et al, EMBO J, 2010; Dunoyer et al, Science 2010), and admitted data manipulations in another retraction he co-authored (Sansregret et al, PLoS Pathogens). Dunoyer also admitted to data manipulation in several corrections he had with his master (Dunoyer, Plant J, 2002; Dunoyer et al, Nature Genetics 2006; Navarro et al, Science, 2006; Schott et al, EMBO J, 2012). In his new comeback paper in Nature Plants, Dunoyer quotes from another corrected publication from the Voinnet lab, which he co-authored:
“In plants, RNAi is the main antiviral defence mechanism. It relies on the production by the RNaseIII Dicer-like 4 (DCL4), or its surrogate DCL2, of 21 and 22 nucleotide (nt) virus-derived (v) siRNAs, respectively 7”
That reference 7 is the notorious paper Deleris et al, 2006, which the already benevolent and apparently biased investigative commission at ETH Zürich destined for retraction, due to gross data manipulations in this paper. The elite journal Science has instead decided to correct it and not to retract (see my article here), because, as the then-Editor-in-Chief Marcia McNutt later put it, a retraction would have hurt the careers of the tenured CNRS researcher Angelique Deleris and other co-authors. But now the Nature Plants peer reviewers accepted that same heavily manipulated and retraction-destined opus as a scientific gospel.
Non, je ne regrette rien
The data manipulator Dunoyer barely ever admitted any guilt, he has never shown remorse about what he did. He and Voinnet kept correcting papers, admitting only what was already known, with PubPeer sleuths posting afterwards evidence of new manipulations in the same papers or even in the corrections. Their last retraction, for Dunoyer et al 2010, was from October 2016 (see my report here). Not even two month later, he submitted his current manuscript to Nature Plants, where he was granted the same treatment as any honest contributor. The Nucleic Acids Research paper Montavon et al 2017 was submitted in July 2016 and accepted in December 2016.
Also Voinnet himself recently placed a paper in that journal (de Felippes et al 2017), it was received in November 2016 and accepted in February 2017. This journal NAR is a new publishing venue for both French scientists, and a kind of clean slate for all parties involved. To besmirch or to adorn, up to your viewpoint. One NAR editorial board member is Irina Stancheva, a Edinburgh-based epigenetics researcher with an impressive PubPeer record. Another NAR board member is RNA-interference specialist Eric Westhof, located at IBMP’s neighbour Institut de biologie moléculaire et cellulaire (IBMC) in Strasbourg, where he coordinates the NetRNA consortium, where Dunoyer and a bunch of his creatively-minded IBMP colleagues are members under his guidance. Make your own assumptions from here.
Update 28.07.2017: Keith Fox, Senior Executive Editor at NAR and professor at
University of Southampton, denied to me that Westhof was the handling editor of either Voinnet’s or Dunoyer’s NAR paper, and declared:
“I can assure you that we were aware of the retractions that you mentioned when we received these manuscript submissions. The papers were carefully checked for any evidence of fraud and the handling editors were alerted to take extra care. We treat each paper on its own merits, and our reviewers are required to comment on whether they suspect that any of the images have been manipulated. Moreover, in one case, in the interest of transparency, the author provided us with the complete set of primary data.
We are grateful for your vigilance. If you have any specific evidence that any of these NAR papers were fraudulent, then we will thoroughly investigate the matter, as we have done on numerous other occasions. We do not assume guilt by association, we treat each paper on its own merits and found no evidence of any malpractice with these papers”.
But how was Dunyoer ever expected to learn and to reform? His place of work, the IBMP or (unofficially) The Olivier Voinnet Institute for Research Integrity in Plant Sciences, made data manipulations a standard method of their research. Even the IBMP director herself, Laurence Maréchal-Drouard, is responsible for very suspicious things found in her own papers (see my report, and this progressively growing PubPeer record). My earlier article narrated how IBMP scientists were evaluated in March 2017 by an external HCERES committee, several members of which had data manipulations in their own papers. Only one of them, Joszef Burgyan, group leader at the Hungarian Agricultural Biotechnology Center, had the decency to resign from the evaluation committee due to a band duplication in a collaboratively-authored paper of his (Várallyay et al 2010). Yet as Burgyan told me, nobody else followed him, all those tainted evaluators commenced their tasks unabated. And the issues flagged for the papers by HCERES committee members Martin Crespi, Serge Delrot, Alain Tissier, or Ute Vothknecht certainly looked not better, in fact maybe even worse.
It seems, some IBMP researchers do not even understand the concept of research integrity. A tenured IBMP scientist and former PhD student of the German mitochondria researcher Roland Lill, Heike Lange, has a number of papers flagged on PubPeer for what obviously looks like duplicated western blot bands (see this report). A strange anonymous comment was recently placed under her article on PubPeer, which may or may not originate from Lange herself. Let us for the sake of argument assume Lange is indeed this comment’s author. This is what the commenter wrote:
“Obviously somebody set out to systematically screen all publications of Roland Lill – very likely a known “science journalist” , who yesterday published a nasty piece on his blog , accusing Dr. Lill for pervasive figure manipulation since 1989.
The experience of the last two years suggests that such a systematic screen will almost always detect a certain quote of erroneous figures in the publication record of almost every PI. Duplication of panels and similar issues in 8 out of more than 100 papers , each of which probably has more than 4 figures? – that is certainly not a case of systematic fraud, this is, lets face it, quite normal. Go and screen your own papers and the papers of your closest colleagues! I bed you’ll find about the same.
It’s also not surprising that the concerned figures are mostly older than 10 years. At that time, Photoshop was rather new, people were inexperienced and not sure of how to use it appropriately. (Genuine) errors occurred more often than today, also because researchers were not aware of the problem and nobody payed attention to the shape of individual bands. Don’t forget that the widespread consensus that the beautification of data (e.g. gel-splicing) is also not acceptable emerged only around 2009! Therefore it is rather unfair to measure paper from these days with todays yardstick.
Copy-paste mistakes and attempts to beautify data occur(ed) even in the best labs. Mostly by the people who make the figures, which are in most cases the people that do the experiments. In addition, some of the data are already many years old when they finally make it into a manuscript. In the end, its almost impossible for an PI to spot all such issues before publication. Are you sure that you do not find such things in your own papers? Did you check?
I am happy that in the last ten years, the scientific community, including the journals, became aware of the problem, and that strategies to prevent the publications of erroneous figures are now developed.
But the “scandal!” glamor of certain self-assigned “science journalists who seem to use pubpeer for their personal profit is not helpful. It’s disgusting.
I have a serious doubt that dividing the world in good guys and bad guys will accelerate the process. We are all trapped in pointing fingers to others, and to the past. Instead, we should agree on some definitive rules, effective from now on, and move on”.
If this is indeed written by a tenured IBMP researcher, what hope can one have for any research integrity at that institute? Rather, it is conceivable that Dunoyer was helped and assisted despite or actually because of his reserach misconduct, to protect all the others at IBMP who do exactly the same, proudly. Which again brings us to Dunoyer’s master and the former uncrowned IBMP king, Voinnet.
Voinnet: too big to fail
If Dunoyer enjoyed so much protection in Strasbourg and beyond, then think of Voinnet, who is connected through co-authorships, funding programmes and lab personnel exchanges to the mightiest of mightiest in the international plant science community. A source once told me that Voinnet refuses to take all the blame for himself and sees many others around him responsible for the misconduct in his lab and in plant sciences in general. Which, given the bizarre practices at IBMP, this makes perfect sense. It is prudent to support Voinnet not only because he is still very powerful and well-connected, but also because he can bury many others should he suddenly have nothing to lose and free to break his ETH- and CNRS-imposed silence. Indeed, his peers by and large did not disappoint him.
Aside of whistleblowing by the US plant researcher Vicki Vance (who was attacked by her peers for just that), the plant science community remained largely silent in the face of Voinnet affair, at least publicly (with Dacheng Liang and his former advisor Rosemary White being notable exceptions, read here). News only briefly flared up when another Voinnet retraction popped up (it is 8 retractions by now, plus around 20 embarrassing corrections, see list here), and there sure won’t be another one forthcoming since the affair is closed to near-everyone’s appreciation. Back then when I tried to investigate the validity of Voinnet’s main research findings (see this report, also here), his tenured colleagues, professors and institute directors, mostly either did not answer at all, or refused to be quoted even anonymously. Many were simply afraid of Voinnet’s and his friends’ revenge, some apparently felt his research was reliable despite all the manipulations. Others openly told me that science must also have a place for researchers like Voinnet (I am not sure if this logic extended to those pushed out of science permanently for failing to publish in prestigious journals where Voinnet has published). This timidity or, one could also say, irresponsibility, led consequently to the entire Voinnet scandal being laid to rest and forgotten. And the French RNA-interference researcher and ETH professor did not disappoint: he is by now has quietly resumed publishing.
Next to the above mentioned NAR paper, Voinnet delivered a collaborative paper at PNAS (Schalk et al 2017), a journal where he was forced by the ETH investigative committee to retract the Moissiard & Dunoyer 2006 paper for gross data manipulation. Then there was a recent paper at the journal RNA (Iki et al 2017). This journals kindly corrected an earlier Voinnet paper despite the fact that every single figure in it was manipulated (Moissiard et al 2017), see my report here. A member of RNA editorial board is coincidentally the above mentioned collaborator Westhof. By the way, Guillaume Moissiard is despite all that currently a tenured researcher at CNRS institute in Perpignan.
And then of course there is Voinnet’s Pumplin et al 2016 in The Plant Cell, the journal where his very first retraction actually took place, unsurprisingly a Dunoyer et al paper. Back in 2004, Plant Cell accommodated Voinnet by dismissing Vance as his peer reviewer, because Vance kept pointing out his data manipulations. What services did Plant Cell offer Voinnet now, so desperate to welcome him back?
Both Voinnet and his sidekick Dunoyer are again publishing on the high level. Next, research funding will start to roll in, which will further cement their faculty positions. Funding, which their honest European colleagues are regularly denied because they did not publish where Voinnet and Dunyoer publish, thanks to their ruthless attitudes to research integrity. Next year the latest, I predict we will see Voinnet giving a talk at a major conference, maybe even Dunoyer will get invited. And of course, these two scientists will be peer reviewing your papers and grant applications, if you work in their field of research.
Science’s alleged power to self-correct did not really impress here, with the bulk of plant science community sticking their heads in the sand or hiding in the bushes. Well, get ready for Voinnet to be back on the big stage soon. And then it will be revenge time.
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