When I first started digging into the affair of data manipulations around the former star of plant sciences Olivier Voinnet in early 2015, I was sure to be dealing with a singular case of fraud in French science, which went totally unnoticed for decades. When 2 years later I wrote “a fish stinks from the head down” in my article about Voinnet’s former Strasbourg plant sciences institute and its problematic director, I did not know how far up to the very top this data manipulation scandal will go. Now, it looks like the entire leadership of  the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), French state’s own network of research institutes, might be corrupted and rotten. Research and its integrity at this “largest fundamental research organization in Europe” are overseen by the very people whose own publications should be under investigation for suspected misconduct. A minor revolution is in order in French science, for which I would like to make a case here.

The new interim president of the entire CNRS of 32,000 research employees with the annual budget of €3.2 Billion, Anne Peyroche, has seen now her own publications flagged on PubPeer for data irregularities. In fact, PubPeer itself, which is run by two CNRS employees, seems to be in a pickle. They now vigorously police and delete attempts of criticisms of Peyroche papers. Is the whistleblowing site fighting for its survival, afraid that CNRS might impose its demise any time? How far is the CNRS’ leadership prepared to go, now that their power is threatened by the evidence of misconduct in their own papers?

Catherine Jessus, being the director of its l’Institut des sciences biologiques (INSB) basically the head biologist at CNRS, already reacted to a stream of evidence against her publications on my site and on PubPeer. No, she is apparently not going to check lab books or provide for original data. Instead she declared to her colleagues that CNRS will soon start a massive legal action against yours truly. If true, the State of France announced to soon set its power and resources upon a German blogger, yet the French media refuses to report anything until CNRS issues an official statement in this regard. This information I have from direct sources.

Revolution2

Jessus is also in charge of misconduct investigations at CNRS and in this capacity she played a key role dealing with Voinnet and his equally unsackable partner Patrice Dunoyer (prior to that she helped save the career of another former Voinnet postdoc, Charles-Henri Lecellier, more here). The investigative report is secret, but because only some inappropriate image-rigging and no fraud intent was found, Voinnet retained his professorship at ETH Zürich in Switzerland, while Dunoyer was let off the hook with just one month of forced vacation, in fact he got to lead Vonnet’s old Strasbourg lab. Noone else from Voinnet’s gang was investigated, in fact CNRS brought back from Switzerland yet another misconduct-tainted Voinnet postdoc, Guillaume Moissard, and made him tenured group leader at CNRS plant science institute in Perpignan. What will Jessus make of one more Voinnet-associated scientist at CNRS, Susana Rivas, is anyone’s guess. Maybe the CNRS chief biologist will give Rivas a professorship, to reward her for two retractions and exemplary data manipulation therein.

A second-hand source told me that the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation might have ordered CNRS to suppress the Jessus scandal and make sure it doesn’t reach the media or wider academic circles.

Meanwhile, the data manipulation scandal at The Olivier Voinnet Institute for Research Integrity in Plant Sciences, also known as l’Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP) grew out of every proportion: besides several group leaders and tenured researchers, its director Laurence Maréchal-Drouard herself is now accused of not acting on the evidence of massive data manipulations in her publications and the PhD dissertations she supervised. A recent “Comité HCERES” scientific review board for CNRS plant science institutes consisted of several scientists whose own papers were flagged for manipulated data.

Peyroche’s presidential office once acknowledged receiving my emails, and forwarded this note from Peyroche:

“Dear Dr Schneider,

I have received your message. Since a new CEO of CNRS is going to be appointed by the end of the year, I want you to be aware that I am in charge of CNRS only few weeks”.

There were no other communications from that side. A silent drama is happening right now, no less than the future of post-publication peer review and global research integrity is at stake. PubPeer is the only whistleblowing platform available on internet, there are no alternatives. CNRS directorate has the power to obliterate it at any time, which will catapult us all back to the golden times of just a couple of years ago when there was no research misconduct whatsoever because no evidence of it ever saw the light of the day.

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How CNRS reacted to my reporting, for starters. Massive legal action against me already announced by Jessus. Don’t mess with Jessus.

Presidential ethics

The previous CNRS director Alain Fuchs redefined the understanding of research fraud in the course of the Voinnet affair in 2015. In an interview with CNRS’ own Le Journal, he said:

“I reserve for myself the term scientific “fraud” to a situation in which a researcher has invented a result in all parts. Even if they exist, these actual, real assassination attempts on science, are fortunately very rare. That’s why I prefer to use the term “scientific misconduct”. The term covers a variety of practices. It may be omission of part of the results, beautification of the results, poor presentation of figures, etc. The reproducibility of these results may have not been adequately tested, claiming that it’s long, it’s expensive, we want to publish immediately. Or pretending to have reproduced them while this is not the case. The misconduct may also be related to the figures, which may have been reworked with software like Photoshop, for example when it comes to images. These are all bad manners to be identified and to go after. Is this common? It’s very hard to say … For our part, the number of cases does not exceed ten per year, while in 2014 more than 40 000 publications carried the CNRS signature. This is the yardstick then he must try to assess the extent of cases of scientific misconduct”.

So according to Fuchs, manipulating data in Photoshop is NOT fraud, but merely “bad manners”. Back then, we all assumed he did so to protect Voinnet from the sack by CNRS. Now it looks Fuchs knew how big the extent of misconduct among the CNRS elite really is, and absolved all of them in advance.

As soon as the news of Peyroche taking the interim leadership of CNRS came in late October 2017, image integrity sleuths took to PubPeer to post their evidence of problematic data in papers from her lab. This was the first image to appear, for Chantalat et al, Molecular Cell 2003.

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The first author soon admitted the splicing on PubPeer, yet there is still the issue of the change in background. This happens for example, when parts of a figure were subjected to different contrast enhancements, for the purpose of making some gel bands look stronger than they actually were. This skews the comparison.

When the wave of evidence against Peyroche papers grew, PubPeer moderations turned to stem it. This evidence for the same Chantalat et al 2003 paper was forwarded to me once it was understood that PubPeer is unlikely to allow new evidence against Peyroche publications to be posted:

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The highlighted patches of the Western blot look very similar in Chantalat et al 2003. Does the original gel really show Arf2 or ATPase signal then? Or neither?

Another Peyroche paper, Le Tallec et al, Molecular Cell 2007 became a battlefield of PubPeer moderation. Then, some strange lane splicing was detected, in Figure 3 (below) and in Figure 5.

image-1509923263100
Strange band splicing evens highlighted with arrows and yellow frame, in Le Tallec et al 2007 on PubPeer. 

It is worth taking the figures 3 and 5 of Le Tallec et al 2007 and boost their signal. Strange featureless rectangular patches appear. Yet PubPeer disallowed simple posting of these two images for discussion, twice:

fig 3 Peyroche2007
Fig 3, Le Tallec et al 2007. Why is the background completely missing in some places?
fig 5 Peyroche2007
Fig 5C, Le Tallec  et al 2007. Last empty lane 20 looks spliced on, there are also some pixel-less background patches.

The following evidence, from different PubPeer users, was approved. Here, same gel filtration experiment features in two different Le Tallec et al 2007 figures. This is by itself not necessarily bad, but why was it presented as an utterly new independent experiment the second time around?

image-1510173912500

Finally, the data from Le Tallec et al 2007 was apparently reused in a later paper from Peyroche lab, Le Tallec et al 2009, in the same journal Molecular Cell:

image-1509991733200
Reused western blots, across two publications. Last arrow misplaced, it is namely the poc4-myc gel which appears twice in both figures. Source: PubPeer

One should not forget that Peyroche, the corresponding author of these publications, is the current CNRS president. Whose institution might be preparing a lawsuit against me, according to another PubPeer-tainted CNRS lead figure, Jessus.

As an aside, an email about an open PhD position was forwarded to me which reveals that CNRS rejects applications from Iranian candidates outright. The call mentions:

“Citizenship Eligibility: We discourage Iranian student to apply, since most likely the CNRS will not accept them for security/defense reasons, unfortunately”.

Will CNRS researchers now queue to buy Jessus’ new book, as loyal Christmas present for all their colleagues and family? Or maybe honest French scientists will eventually understand that enough is enough, and will shove these dishonest imposters off their thrones.

Update 18.11.2017. The above mentioned paper Le Tallec et al 2007, especially its figures 3 and 5, were now scrutinised by a PubPeer user, who uncovered convincing evidence of inappropriate image manipulation. Example:

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Figure 3D, Le Tallec et al 2007. Noise patterns prove the hidden composite nature of this gel image, including a case of background duplication.  Source: PubPeer


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23 thoughts on “Call to research integrity, or at least a minor revolution at CNRS

  1. I didn’t understand how PubPeer is linked to the CNRS and why it could be controlled by them. Could you elaborate on this?
    Also, in case the site is in trouble, wouldn’t it be possible to host PubPeer on another server out of reach, or something like that?

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      1. Fortunately, they have had the good sense to incorporate as a 501(c)(3) foundation in the United States. So, while CNRS definitely has the power to end the present employment of an employee, the web site itself is at least technically protected by an entity that is not under the control of the CNRS.

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  2. “PubPeer is the only whistleblowing platform available on internet, there are no alternatives.”
    This statement is not correct. Life Science Network (www.lifescience.net) features a post-publication review module as well. If you click on any publication, there is a “Add new review” button, which you can use to submit text, images, documents and numerical ratings.

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  3. The question of Pubpeer is inevitably lit by the present posts. When comments on Pubpeer are anonymous, they are implicitly attributed to the founder of the site Brandon Stell or his assistent Boris Barbour, both being employee of the CNRS. By transitivity, comments somehow arise from the CNRS itself and what happens when the CNRS actually is the object of the comment? We are in France and such a situation drives us back to the old foucaldian 1968’s question : “D’où tu parles?” (Where do you speak from?). Pubpeer speaks from the CNRS but who watches the watchers?

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  4. Fortunately following other Twitter accounts either without logging in or using another identity is trivial. If that other identity never posts a comment on anything, CNRS won’t have a reason to block it, either.

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    1. My opinion is that pubpeer is a horrible thing that actually damages science. If anything, it shows how not to do things. But whenever I say something, people cry “conflict of interest”, so I’m keeping my mouth shut 🙂

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  5. Perhaps PubPeer is really just focused at the moment on the negative side of science…what is has been a good thing for now I think because there is many dodgy science being published…maybe in the future PubPeer can evolute to a public peer-review platform where the editors of different journals have to consider the comments posted there before accepting a manuscript for publication?

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    1. Brilliant idea actually. I think that the top journals like Nature and Science must take it in action. Every paper accepted for publication in these journals has to be given only pre-publication status and opened for pre-publication review to the whole scientific society. Let’s say for one month. The amount of published nonsense will drop by 90%. Now we can only watch how the nonsense is published and authors of nonsense get their funding using these papers.
      If the papers are discussed prior to final publication not only by 4-5 secret reviewers but by whole community- editors will be able to get unique insight into the problems of some untouchable authors. I know it is unlikely to happen but I honestly did not know how to improve collapsing review system. Now the cure is found. Once all criticism of the top papers is published on line, even if the paper is occasionally approved by Editors, everybody will know what it worth. The most influential papers in the top journals MUST be reviewed by whole research community because they affect the whole research field, basically everyone involved there. Bravo Ana!

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      1. Dear Angry
        I am also really happy you enjoyed my idea
        Perhaps this can really happen: how many signatures from different scientists do we need to move forward with this idea? Maybe we can contact PubPeer founders? Could Leonid help with us by publishing a post about this and get signatures from the scientific community in his website?
        Thank you so much
        Ana

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      2. Of course anyone can do this – preprint. However, there is not such thing as a ‘top’ journal and the very use of the term illustrates the problem in science.
        Journals are merely a means to communicate science (before their invention, it was personal letters and monographs, which were deemed too slow, hence the journal). It is well worth reading the history of science publication and peer review at the Royal Society. The first journal ran for a long time as a preprint service!
        What we do have is commercial and other outfits claiming to be ‘top’ journals, and large numbers of scientists buying into an idea for which there is no supporting evidence – indeed all evidence points the other way.

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      3. For Angry and Ferniglab:

        http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/open-peer-review

        So, this scenario would be the ideal:

        Author agrees to open peer review – referee agrees to open peer review
        Signed referee report made public

        In my opinion, the referees reports always would be made public in a similar platform like pubpeer, any scientist could send published his/her peer-review, either anonymously or with their own name, raw data would also be available. This way when we search for a publication we would have access to everything the peer-reviewer comments, the manuscript and the raw data. Manuscripts would be automatically published as pre-prints.

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  6. A possible explanation for the brillant course on compression artefacts by Prof. Barbour on pubpeer yesterday: Benoît Le Tallec (https://www.ibens.ens.fr/spip.php?article237&lang=fr) works at IBENS, the same institute as… Boris Barbour… There is no conflict of interest since Le Tallec is an Inserm researcher! But the whole institute is also endorsed by the CNRS. Who know?

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  7. This is by itself not necessarily bad, but why was it presented as an utterly new independent experiment the second time around?

    It is not a good look when the horizontal alignment of the different bands is different in 2007 and 2009. Lanes that were aligned in 2007 (i.e. separate molecules from the same fraction) had shifted to represent different cell fractions in 2009.

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