Following my recent article about attempts to fix data irregularities in the papers by CNRS’ chief biologist and director of l’Institut des sciences biologiques (INSB) Catherine Jessus, this state-owned French research institution, the biggest in Europe, now went full Pravda. Just as the notorious propaganda newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Pravda means Truth in Russian), CNRS press release of February 21st about the Jessus misconduct investigation combines lies, disinformation, and thinly veiled threats and calls for mass denunciation of traitors. The foreign enemy of French science is clearly identified: myself, the slanderous blogger.
All that would be mildly entertaining, were it not for the main victim of that investigative report: research integrity. We learn from that Soviet-style propaganda piece that Jessus took responsibility for almost all of the data manipulations in her papers, in fact even more data integrity problems emerged during the investigation, in figures previously not flagged either on my site or on PubPeer. Jessus was tasked by the commission to analyse her own incriminated figures herself, and to report her findings to her investigators. These professors of the l’Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC, now Sorbonne University) who wisely chose to hide their identities (while decrying same with PubPeer commenters, sic!) had then the cheek to actually endorse the practice of data manipulations, in a public document, most astonishingly that of gel band duplications across different gel images, “for reasons of visual symmetry”. In other instances of cloned gel bands, the investigators spoke of scientifically-irrelevant “assembly errors” of western blots. No, not of separate antibody panels. Of individual gel images. They do not believe in monolithic photographs of an experimental gel, but prefer those as a digital puzzle or a collage, to be assembled from various bits and pieces in Photoshop, where a scientist sometimes inadvertently slips and uses the same gel band or bit of background twice.
Masquerading research misconduct as good scientific practice is a form of scientific misconduct in itself. It doesn’t matter if these so-called experts really believed into the greater good of data manipulations, or strategically trolled the scientific community under cover of anonymity to save Jessus from herself, or were professionally unqualified to judge on the matters of biological science. Their decision not to see any misconduct despite ascertained evidence, while appropriating the entire blame onto those who blew the whistle, was borderline criminal, considering the circumstances. These dishonest UPMC investigators should be dragged out of their anonymity and publicly shamed and disciplined for the damage they just did to the reputation of French science.
Instead, we have an investigative report and a press release which looks as if written either by retired Stasi officials or Pravda columnists. It is in French, so I used Google to translate the press release, the conclusions of the report, and the detailed analysis.
The Sorbonne University – CNRS commission of inquiry into the questioning of Catherine Jessus’ publications concludes that there is no scientific misconduct
In September 2017, Catherine Jessus, research director at the CNRS, head of a team in the Laboratory of Developmental Biology (CNRS-Sorbonne University), director of the Institute of Biological Sciences (INSB) of the CNRS, was accused of scientific misconduct in a blog [mine, also publicly confirmed by French news agency AEF, here. I also never publicly accused Jessus of research misconduct, that is a lie made up by CNRS and UPMC, -LS]. These elements, relayed on certain social networks and delivered in disguise by anonymous commentators, were aimed at 11 articles published over a period of twenty years, of which she is not the first author, and is the last author for four of them. De facto, her co-authors, including several researchers or research professors belonging to UPMC or CNRS, were also implicated.
UPMC (now Sorbonne University) set up a commission of inquiry, whenever a possibility of misconduct or scientific fraud is suspected. The CNRS has joined this initiative. In addition, some scientific journals have also approached the university for investigation, according to their procedures.
The investigation report concludes that “it did not find, in the figures incriminated on the internet, any basis for a scientific misconduct of Ms. Jessus”. In seven of the eleven publications, the committee states that “suspicions of inappropriate assembly of figures are unfounded”. In each of the other four, errors were identified that did not call into question the conclusions of the research conducted, errors of which “Ms. Jessus is never the originator”. The report states that corrective requests have been made to the relevant scientific publishers, who have all accepted them.
Deeply committed to the respect of ethics both in the conduct of research and its publication, the CNRS and Sorbonne University recall their commitment as scientific institutions to treat the business of scientific misconduct with the utmost rigour, protecting the launchers of sincere warnings, such as researchers and lecturers whose innocence has been demonstrated. In case of misconduct or proven fraud, they take appropriate sanctions, without any complacency.
The CNRS and Sorbonne University finally call for greater collective vigilance regarding the multiplication of false accusations, without any scientific justification, under the guise of pseudonyms, because it complicates the identification of real fraud.
The CNRS and Sorbonne University reaffirm their confidence in Catherine Jessus and are indignant at the slanderous campaign of which she was a victim.
This was the press release, it came right after I published this article. In case you naively thought that “suspicions of inappropriate assembly of figures are unfounded” means that the supposedly duplicated gel bands turned out to be different: no. What UPMC investigators decreed is that those gel bands were indeed digitally cloned across different gels “for reasons of visual symmetry” and were as such “correct” and “legitimate”. They also said that copy-pasting patches of background to cover up undesired parts of a gel are perfectly OK, because those “affect control areas with no relevant signal from the biological point of view”.
I have seen a number of white-washing investigative reports. The excuses ranged from “these bands are not duplicated“, over “it does look shady, but with original data missing there is nothing we can do“, up to “yes those are rigged figures, but their use was an accident and we don’t know who did it anyway“. With Jessus however, CNRS not only boldly admitted what other investigations were trying to hide, they even declared data manipulation to be good scientific practice. This black-is-white and white-is-black public indoctrination is exactly what Soviet Union used to enforce. At the end, we all are expected to love Comrade Jessus, and hate her critics.
The slide show below offers the translations of the detailed analysis, a pdf is here. My own comments are in red, labelled “LS”
Now, if intentionally duplicating gel bands and background patches is not misconduct, what is then defined as misconduct, to be persecuted by the CNRS apparatchiks “without any complacency”?
If flagging objective data integrity concerns is now defined by that Pravda announcement as “a slanderous campaign” on an innocent “victim”, as “false accusations, without any scientific justification”, what is then scientifically justified whistleblowing, which “sincere warnings” are allowed under the new Party doctrine of CNRS Politburo?
What does the CNRS amateurish attempt at playing Stasi mean with their order of “greater collective vigilance regarding the multiplication of false accusations” directed towards the CNRS working masses?
My guess: it is the act of reporting data manipulations and research misconduct which CNRS has now announced not to tolerate. Data manipulation is now good scientific practice, critiquing data manipulation as a something less then commendable is unscientific slander. This Orwellian practice is exactly how Pravda used to indoctrinate Soviet citizens not to believe their own eyes and common sense.
Vigilante scientists seem to be invited in the best Stasi manner to report complainers, troublemakers, saboteurs and traitors to the authorities. Heard someone critiquing a digitally manipulated figure in a CNRS paper, or protesting how their principal investigator expects them to rig data, or secretly reading Schneider’s slanderous blog? Be a loyal CNRS comrade, report those enemies of the people! Get rewarded, see them squashed without mercy.
Or maybe not. The more one looks at this pathetic bum-wipe of a CNRS press release from Erich Honecker’s latrine, the more it does sound like the CNRS Politburo is panicking. They are obviously scared of CNRS scientists, and try to bully them into silence and submission, similar to the morally bankrupted GDR in its death throes in late 1980ies. There is proportionally much less money in French science then there used to be, yet academic inbreeding and nepotism are still standard practice in CNRS. We do not know yet what the new president of CNRS, Antoine Petit, will bring. Maybe he will be a kind of a CNRS Gorbatchev, who will break down the corrupt oppressive system, with some badly needed Perestroika and Glasnost. The current press release by CNRS Politburo however suggests they count on Petit to continue toeing the Party line.
Petit never replied to my emails. Maybe he is afraid of the Politburo, maybe he genuinely despises me as a slanderous blogger who knows nothing of how biological science is done properly, or maybe the President thinks I am simply a nobody, not a significant enough entity to waste his secretary’s time on. Well, Petit took office in advance only because my earlier reporting toppled his predecessor, Anne Peyroche.
Below is the summary of the investigative report. It is unsigned. Indeed, anyone signing that cheap propaganda piece should be quite afraid of international ridicule, or face misconduct investigation themselves. Highlights and illustrations mine.
Report addressing the internet suspicions of publications of which Ms. Jessus is co-author.
Presented to the Presidencies of the CNRS and Sorbonne University, on February 16, 2018,
by the commission of inquiry designated by these institutions.
Ms. Jessus is Director of Research at the CNRS. She leads a team in UMR CNRS / SU 7622, within the IBPS campus Jussieu. Beyond her activity, for more than four years, Ms. Jessus has also been Director of the Institute Biological Sciences (INSB) of CNRS, a strategic and managerial responsibility of CNRS intervention in the field of life sciences at the national level.
We were approached by the UPMC / Sorbonne University and the CNRS on a mission to provide scientific expertise of Ms. Jessus’s publications. The context of this mission is the following. Charges of scientific misconduct were laid against her on a blog [here, but actually there are no charges of misconduct there. UPMC lies, -LS], accusations relayed on an online discussion forum, by the same blogger [myself, on PubPeer, -LS] and by a number of commenters using various pseudonyms that do not allow their identification. These charges relate to possible data manipulation in 21 figures in eleven articles of which Ms Jessus is co-author. For the eleven articles concerned, Ms Jessus is the last author on four occasions (4, 5, 6, 11) and is never first author. Mr. Haccard has co-authored seven times (2 of which as the last author, -8, 9-); Mr. Ozon is co-author six times (of which 3 as last author, -1, 2, 3-), Ms. Dupré is co-author four times (3 times first author, -8, 9, 11-, 1 time last author, -10-) and Ms. Karaiskou is co-author twice (as first author, -3, 6-).
The work of the inquiry commission took place from October 18, 2017 to February 15 2018 [yet Jessus publicly announced the exact same outcome of UPMC investigation on November 28th 2017, -LS). The Committee, after having taken cognizance of all the criticised articles, auditioned Ms. Jessus three times, then heard from two of her co-authors, first or last signatories of articles for which additional information on the mode of production of certain figures was necessary. The commission asked Madame Jessus to provide the original documents used to assemble the incriminated figures and, when necessary, to provide the results of experiments similar to the published ones in order to verify their robustness. The Committee also asked Ms Jessus for a detailed report analysing each of the incriminated figures, by bringing them scientific comments necessary for a thorough understanding of the presented results. These elements were compared with the Commission’s critical analysis of these same figures.
For 7 criticised articles (1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11) suspicions of inappropriate assembly of
figures are unfounded (see “detailed analysis”). We can list the unfounded suspicions in the following categories:
– legitimate duplications: these are, in most cases, control samples for immuno-replicas (western blots) of the same experiment, different experimental parts of which are illustrated in different figures. These same experimental conditions being provided with same controls, it is normal for these controls to be used again in the figures illustrating different parts of this same experiment (2, 4, 5, 7).
– re-hybridizations of the same membrane: the same membrane has been probed
successively by two different antibodies directed against the same protein: the first
immuno-replica detects the presence of phosphorylated groups on this protein while that the second immuno-replica detects the protein itself. It is therefore normal to find identical protein bands in their form in the two immuno-replicas, with different intensities on the first immuno-replica depending on whether the protein is over- or under-phosphorylated (9).
– similarities in the background: some backgrounds show “pixels” identical in two different places of the same figure. Consultation of the originals shows the total absence of figure manipulation. This suggests that these “pixels” have been printed during the digitization of the image, during the digitization of autoradiograms or figure, once assembled and edited for publication (5, 7, 9).
– unreported splicing of different images in the same panel: several charges relate to the presence of non-contiguous parts of a gel, re-assembled in the same panel without their non-contiguity being indicated by a vertical line or space. In all cases, consulting the originals or reading carefully the article has revealed that the assemblies were totally justified, whether they came from different parts of the same gel, or different gels resulting from the same experiment and hybridized by the same antibody (1-6, 8, 11) [here, the report actually refers to cases of duplicated gel bands, -LS]. The change of the codex of representation of such figures (insertion of a vertical line or a space) is consecutive to the abandonment of montages following the introduction of digitized image processing, in particular by Photoshop type software. These software makes it possible to erase the borders of these re-assemblies, removing the possibility for the reader to view them in simple reading. It is from 2013 on that some journals began to advocate the use of lines to indicate these connections (for example see Annex 2), a recommendation which is not yet shared by all the scientific journals. It helps to understand that the indication to the reader of the boundaries of re-assembly in scientific article figures, which is undoubtedly a welcome indication since the eruption of image processing software, was implemented gradually over the ten
last years. Seven of the criticised articles were published before this change in
representation codex appeared in the scientific literature. The last is published in
a journal that had not yet produced this codex in the “Instructions to Authors” of
2017 [there, authors actually first replaced entire figures in their correction, and then indicated splicing, – LS].
Next are three articles (3, 6, 10) with obvious errors in figure assembly which led an author to place the same set of controls in two different panels. When the originals were found, we found that the controls from each panel existed. For those which have not been found, we have access to identical experiments that confirm that the assembly error did not alter the scientific meaning of the experiment [oh, but they did alter it, not that it mattered to the “experts”. See here. -LS]. We purposely use the term “assembly error” because intentionality is difficult to assume since there is no change in the scientific message of the figure. These are control lanes in experiments showing proven phenomena whose meaning is not modified by these duplications.
However, these errors warranted that the authors propose a corrigendum to the journals concerned, with appropriate controls to restore the good reading of the experiments. This approach had been initiated by the authors even before the beginning of the work of the commission. Since then, all these corrigenda have been accepted.
The last case (8) corresponds to the attenuation of a reaction due to the keratin present in the environment, a very classic contamination for immuno-replicates. This mitigation, which was not done by Ms. Jessus but by the researcher who did the experiment, does not modify the reading of it or its scientific sense. It naturally required a corrigendum correcting the presentation faithful to the original to remove any ambiguity. This corrigendum was accepted. This is the only example of this type that we found among the 21 incriminated figures.
In conclusion, the Committee states that it did not find any ground for scientific misconduct of Ms. Jessus in the figures incriminated on the internet. The commission noted three publications that included figure assembly errors, and a publication that has an attenuation of contaminants in a figure. These articles deserved publication of the originals to remove any ambiguity, which is in progress. The Commission stresses that Ms Jessus is never at the origin of these assembly errors of this attenuation, the co-authors who assembled these figures have been identified without any ambiguity”.
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