The French scientist Olivier Voinnet, responsible for probably the biggest fraud scandal in plant sciences, is back in the news. His present employer, the Swiss university ETH Zürich has now concluded, in collaboration with Voinnet’s past employer French CNRS, their second investigation into data manipulations in Voinnet papers. ETH’s previous investigation from 2015 found Voinnet guilty of research misconduct after he admitted to have manipulated his data, during his entire academic career and all by himself, without the knowledge of his supervisors, peers or lab members. The photoshopper Voinnet was portrayed as a distrait genius suffering of a form of self-harm syndrome, who needlessly attacked his own perfectly valid and reliable research data. With the new ETH announcement comes a surprising twist of this real-life academic sitcom, where research integrity became a sidekick to laugh at: Voinnet is innocent of any data manipulations. Someone else did it, behind his back.
To me, ETH announced that the Voinnet case is closed forever, no new evidence of data manipulations is admissible, and no new investigation will ever take place, no matter what else might be found. This is important, because new evidence of Voinnet’s so far overlooked data manipulations keeps emerging.
In 2014-2015, around 40 Voinnet papers were flagged for suspected data manipulation on PubPeer (by now, there are more, almost the entire body of Voinnet’s research output is tainted). Both ETH and CNRS announced investigations, while they declared those figures to be mere “illustrations”. The new press release avoids this description, at least some progress. Unlike the previous ETH report, this new one by ETH-CNRS from 2018 is secret, as is the 2015 previous French one. Also secret is the list of the 5 papers from Voinnet’s CNRS lab in Strasbourg which were investigated and found to contain fraud.
Following is the press release by ETH Zürich from 6 September 2018, interspersed with my comments. Its title is apparently intended as ETH’s final two-finger salute to all decent scientists out there, who still think science is about actual research, and not publishing irreproducible and fake stuff in elite journals in order to get your hands on public jobs, power and funding money.
ETH professor not guilty of manipulation
“An independent commission of inquiry led by the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) with the participation of ETH Zurich has investigated the publications of ETH Professor Olivier Voinnet’s former research group at the CNRS. The inquiry uncovered manipulation of certain figures. However, the commission’s report confirms that Voinnet did not personally initiate this manipulation.
The inquiry uncovered manipulation of certain figures. However, the commission’s report confirms that Voinnet did not personally initiate this manipulation. Nevertheless, since he held overall responsibility as group leader, the university has reiterated the formal warning given to the professor and extended it for another five years.
The investigation discovered not only negligence and errors connected with figures in the five publications reviewed, but also evidence of intentional manipulation. These shortcomings, described as “severe” by the Executive Board of ETH Zurich, go beyond those described in the original 2015 report by the ETH independent commission of inquiry”.
In contrast to this new whitewashing enterprise, the 2015 Voinnet investigation by ETH was more transparent: the full report was published by ETH, 6 retractions were requested and 8 happened (one paper requested for retraction was saved by Science editors). One of the two external investigators, Witold Filipowicz, had an undisclosed conflict of interest: his relationship to Voinnet’s PhD advisor and senior author on several papers under investigation, David Baulcombe, was inappropriately close at that time. Incidentally, Filipowicz and his co-investigators did not recommend any of Voinnet’s papers from Baulcombe lab in Norwich, UK, for retraction (though retractions happened anyway). Instead, the report fingered a peer as suspected culprit of “an organised effort to discredit OV and inflate accusations against him”. That peer was the Voinnet debunker microbiologist Benjamin tenOever, and he had absolutely zero, nothing, rien, gar nichts to do with the avalanche of PubPeer posts of 2014-2015. You can either take my word here, or ETH’s.
Unlike in 2018, the 2015 ETH report appropriated the responsibility for data manipulation to Voinnet himself, who also admitted being the Photoshop artist. This self-sacrifice by that great man of great science allowed ETH to avoid investigating members of Voinnet’s ETH lab (one of whom, Constance Ciaudo was already herself an ETH professor). The ETH report from 2015 explains what happened:
“As OV has himself stated in one of the documents submitted to the
commission: “It is almost as if, having generated the data and convinced ourselves of
their robustness, the steps involving their representation under the form of figures (for
publication or presentation) became somehow less important than the fact of having
generated the data per se and answered a scientific question”. Caught-up in the race
to explore radically new scientific terrain OV and some of his collaborators permitted
and used image manipulation, sometimes small and seemingly benign, but
sometimes very serious.”
So now, 3 years later, we suddenly learn that Voinnet in fact never manipulated anything. Someone else did it. Maybe it was Leonid Schneider, ETH in fact once threatened to have me prosecuted for espionage under “Art. 320 STGB”. The current Swiss press release explains that where previously only was unintentional misconduct (fake images inadvertently slipping into published papers), they now found outright fraud. But luckily “not by Olivier Voinnet himself”.
“The CNRS independent commission of inquiry worked under the leadership of an independent representative of the Institut Pasteur and also included two ETH representatives. ETH Zurich is now drawing its own conclusions, independently of the CNRS, based on the report’s findings.
Not personally involved in manipulation, but responsible as group leader
Professor Olivier Voinnet was co-author of four out of the five publications examined. Three of these were published during his time as head of a research group at the CNRS in Strasbourg. The new report confirms that neither Voinnet nor other members of ETH Zurich were personally involved in manipulating the figures. Voinnet did not perform, order or scientifically endorse such manipulation. “This finding is crucial for assessing the case. The figures were manipulated, but not by Olivier Voinnet himself. Nevertheless, as group leader he still bears overall organisational and management responsibility,” emphasises Professor Detlef Günther, Vice President for Research and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich.”
The 2015 investigation ordered Voinnet to cede control of his Strasbourg lab and focus on working in Zürich only. From there on, the lab at the CNRS Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP) in Strasbourg was run by Voinnet’s right hand man, Patrice Dunoyer. Until earlier this year, that is. It was dissolved in utter secrecy in January 2018, and Dunoyer departed to his far-away home island of New Caledonia.
Come to think of it, the claim “figures were manipulated, but not by Olivier Voinnet himself” might even be partially true. IBMP is a place where data manipulation is standard well-established practice (now officially endorsed by CNRS after the Catherine Jessus scandal), and the problem of insufficient research integrity starts with the institute’s director herself, Laurence Drouard. In this regard, the announced blaming of any IBMP scientists is unlikely to hit an innocent here.
“Based on the findings of the report, the Executive Board has reached the decision that Voinnet will remain a professor at ETH Zurich. The Executive Board has nevertheless also decided to extend the sanctions it originally imposed in 2015. In concrete terms, this means that the formal warning given to Voinnet is reiterated and will continue for another five years up to 2023. He must also continue to restrict his research to his own group in Zurich, and his publication activity will be monitored up to the end of 2020. Furthermore, Voinnet’s supervision by an experienced mentor, first initiated in 2015, will continue at least until the end of 2020″.”
This is actually very insightful. Because Voinnet was still under a formal warning from 2015, if he were to be found guilty of any research misconduct ever again, ETH would have no choice but to sack him. Especially now that actual fraud was suddenly found. Sacking Voinnet is obviously an unthinkable solution, to be avoided at all times and at all costs. Even if to prevent Voinnet from finally opening his mouth and telling on every single one of his peers worldwide who also engaged in research fraud and other dishonest academic activities.
ETH in fact declared to me that Voinnet will never be investigated ever again for any data manipulations, whatever may come. This is because I tried to submit to ETH Ombudsmen my recent article containing evidence of fake data in 5 Nature Genetics papers, all with Voinnet as last author, one of them (Marí-Ordóñez et al 2013) even from ETH. The notification of suspected research misconduct was rejected, but not by Ombudsmen (who never replied), but by the ETH Press office. The official declared:
“The ETH Zürich has exhaustively investigated the responsibility of Professor Voinnet in two independent investigations and took appropriate measures. Therefore, we will not follow up on your notification”.
It is not the first time ETH tells own Ombudspeople who can be investigated and who is above the law. In an earlier mobbing case around ETH astronomy professor Marcella Carollo, the university pushed the ombudsman aside and only acted when the bullied students finally managed to get their story into the press. The astronomy institute was dissolved, but Carollo only sent on sabbatical.
It is of course not true that ETH or CNRS investigated any of the new evidence published on my site or on PubPeer, simply because they didn’t have it at that time. In 2015, they selected 32 flagged Voinnet papers for scrutiny, found only 20 worth criticising and only specifically addressed some of the evidence for each of them. No forensic analysis to find more was invited, and Voinnet only admitted to what was already known. This second investigation only happened exactly because the first one did not cover all problematic Voinnet papers, while additional data rigging in those already investigated ones was discovered after the 2015 report was published.
The main message from the ETH email is: no more evidence against Voinnet will be admitted. There will never be another Voinnet investigation, ever. Which in return means, Voinnet is in principal free to fake data again, as long as it helps ETH to papers and funding.
Nothing will be admitted anymore, because Voinnet is innocent in the past. present and the future. Including this new evidence I received from a reader, on a rather recent Voinnet-coauthored paper Uddin et al Nucleic Acids Research 2014. ETH is sure not interested.
Other institutions joined the ranks and drew a line. The first author on that 2013 Voinnet paper from ETH is Arturo Marí-Ordóñez, presently freshly appointed as group leader at Gregor-Mendel-Institut in Vienna, Austria. Also this institution refused to investigate, head of science support Matthew Watson rejected my notification:
“We have full confidence in the scientific integrity of Drs [..] and Marí-Ordóñez. If you have concerns about specific papers, please first contact the corresponding authors, then the journals, then the institutions involved (in that order).”
Nobody, neither Voinnet nor any of his coauthors who either manipulated data themselves or accepted their boss’ manipulated figures in their papers will be ever investigated. Basically all Voinnet’s first authors are professors, tenured group leaders or on tenure-track. The second generation trained in Voinnet’s art of sciencing is already entrenched in academia, and they are now training the next generation.
Now comes another gem from the ETH press release. It looks like this time Voinnet was actually investigating himself. This is not that outlandish, CNRS’ chief biologist Catherine Jessus was doing same when caught with manipulated data. This subheading of the new ETH press release reveals goes like that:
Inquiry triggered by Voinnet
“Vice President Günther stresses that no further infringements of the ETH Zurich Guidelines for Research Integrity (see info box below for information on good scientific practice) have occurred in the Voinnet group at ETH Zurich since the initial inquiry in 2015. The question of the motive for the manipulation is still unanswered after the CNRS inquiry – just as it was after the ETH investigation in 2015 – as there appears to have been no clear scientific advantage in manipulating the figures.”
The ETH maintains that Voinnet’s scientific legacy is still fully reliable, the manipulations were meaningless in this regard. But what actually makes them and CNRS assume Voinnet’s science was pristine and correct, and his manipulations a kind of self-harming vandalism of a perfectionist genius? Of course nobody ever released any of that original data which Voinnet used to prove his innocence. And as to what Voinnet submitted as corrections: those were in fact different, newly generated figures, in a number of cases those corrections themselves were rigged in Photoshop.
The legend of Voinnet’s scientific achievements being objectively unblemished by data manipulations is something his loyal investigators and enablers at ETH, CNRS and elsewhere can tattoo on their foreheads, but it still won’t make it true. As mentioned above, some of Voinnet’s scientific claims were debunked by tenOever, and ETH took revenge on him for that. My earlier reporting (here and here) covered my prolonged attempts to find any support in academic community for Voinnet’s main research findings on miRNAs being the main antiviral long-distance gene silencing agent in plants. Aside of David Baulcombe’s own work, there was absolutely nothing. In general, not a single paper in Voinnet’s entire body of work was so far named to be objectively reproducible.
“The Executive Board recognises that Voinnet has cooperated with the investigation since the first allegations and has actively contributed to a resolution of the errors. In recent years, for example, the ETH professor has worked conscientiously and to the best of his ability to submit corrigenda for the erroneous research data or to retract the relevant publications where necessary. It was also Voinnet himself who got the latest investigation into events at CNRS in Strasbourg under way by contributing his own in-depth research, and who insisted on full clarification of the facts. The investigation has identified another problem: since Voinnet implicitly trusted his former employees at IBMP and saw no reason to be suspicious up to the summer of 2016, some manipulated data may also have potentially crept in to the corrections that he made to the research articles. Voinnet will now rectify these immediately.”
Voinnet basically directed ETH and CNRS in their investigations, and then dumped the blame with his French colleagues at IBMP. Which I personally can understand: CNRS was mean to Voinnet, excluding him from ever returning to work in his native France and taking away his IBMP lab. And now same CNRS defends Voinnet’s former superior Jessus for doing same kind of gel band copy-pasting he did. Not fair at all, and now is payback time. The French won’t be happy about that, but Voinnet’s own standing with the germanophilic Swiss ETH is safe now, at least as long as he continues publishing is elite journals as he does now.
That was the ETH press release. Swiss newspapers simply re-chewed it, unquestioningly. But there is still the French daily Le Monde, which has been covering Voinnet affair since its very beginning, and also reported about other French research misconduct scandals I set in motion: those of former CNRS president Anne Peyroche, and the CNRS chief biologist Catherine Jessus. For the latter, Le Monde journalist David Larousserie became subject of a grotesque witch hunt by French academic elites, where 500 signatories publicly called for his head.
Le Monde found out that CNRS might announce their own findings later this September. So we can take bets now who the culprit will be. I tip on Dunoyer, who left science and France anyway.
The Voinnet affair demonstrates that science is utterly unable to self-correct itself. The problem: there is barely anything black and white here. Those Voinnet peers and coauthors who quickly took distance from him in public, while working behind the scenes to keep him in his professorship, are not that innocent themselves in their own research activities.
For example, the University of East Anglia refused four times in the course of 2 years to disclose to me the results of their investigation into Voinnet’s PhD thesis under Baulcombe. The dissertation contains same fake figures Voinnet admitted to have manipulated, the relevant papers were corrected or retracted. To me, the university even refused to admit if there was an investigation. All my four Freedom of Information inquiries were rejected outright, to protect Voinnet’s privacy. Dale Sanders, director of John Innes Centre in Norwich, which back then used to grab official credit for those same manipulated Voinnet’s papers, managed to both defend Voinnet and distance his institute from any association with him, and concluded with calling me an “internet troll” whose writings are not “peer reviewed”.
But the English university did speak to Le Monde now:
“The University of East Anglia, where Olivier Voinnet wrote his thesis between 1998 and 2001, also announced on September 6, after its own investigation of the work carried out at the time, there was “no dishonesty and confirms that the conclusions remain valid.” Only figures should be corrected.”
Right after, University of East Anglia issued the same information they denied to me four times under FOIA, in a press release:
“The University of East Anglia has concluded a thorough investigation into concerns raised in January 2015 about possible research misconduct in Professor Olivier Voinnet’s PhD thesis awarded in 2001. This investigation was conducted with the full cooperation of Professor Voinnet and concluded that the matter relates to a minor breach of University Regulations on conduct in research for two figure panels and to some figure mounting errors for the remaining parts of the thesis. The investigation found no evidence of dishonesty and confirmed that the thesis’ conclusions remain unaffected. The outcome of the investigation was that an addendum to the thesis would be supplied by the author, and be reviewed and approved by appropriate internal and external examiners. This addendum was reviewed in this way and approved by the University in 2017, and was added to the public access copies of the thesis held by the University Library and British Library.”
The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, where Voinnet did his PhD under Baulcombe was actually doing their own investigation. Which now landed in the garbage, since University of East Anglia decided the thesis was scientifically near impeccable. Nicholas Talbot, newly recruited Executive Director of The Sainsbury Laboratory went to PubPeer to declare:
“The Council of The Sainsbury Laboratory fully accepts the results of the investigation carried out by The University of East Anglia regarding figures that appear in this publication from the PhD thesis of Prof. Olivier Voinnet. “
Plant sciences are becoming a total mess, almost on a par with cancer or stem cell research, in a sense that the academics are unable to deal even with the worst cases of research fraud. There are some clues as to why. The scientific board evaluation at IBMP in 2017 was a clown circus show, where both the examiners and examinees had manipulated data in their papers. And on PubPeer there is even evidence of rather questionable data in papers authored by some very vocal Voinnet critics from Germany, here, here and here.
Elites failed once again, and never have heroes. Yet even Voinnet remains one, for many in plant sciences. It is the journalists who uncover the fraud who are seen as the enemies of scientific thought and stalking perverts.
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