The Voinnet investigator and the tricky issue of conflict of interests

The Voinnet investigator and the tricky issue of conflict of interests

Great scientists never have any conflicts of interests, and in the case of the investigation of the research misconduct by the plant scientist Olivier Voinnet, led by his Swiss employer ETH Zürich, this was also apparently the case. Voinnet was found guilty of misconduct and admitted image manipulations in many papers. Yet his science remained largely unquestioned, and even original data behind the most outrageously manipulated figures was said to have been available in many cases. The ETH investigation recommended 6 retractions, one of which was even avoided thanks to the concerns the journal Science had towards that paper’s junior authors (Voinnet’s current retraction count stands at 8 papers and almost 20 corrections, where manipulated data was simply exchanged with new one). Professor emeritus Witold Filipowicz, of the Friedrich-Mieschner-Institute in Basel, is like Voinnet a specialist in the field of regulatory small RNAs, and he was therefore one of two external Voinnet investigators whom ETH invited in early 2015. It did not matter to ETH that it was actually Filipowicz who nominated Voinnet for the EMBO Gold Medal, which the disgraced plant scientist then lost after EMBO’s own investigation into his many years of data manipulation. Continue reading “The Voinnet investigator and the tricky issue of conflict of interests”

Is Guillaume Moissiard that Voinnet co-author now under investigation by CNRS and ETH?

The research misconduct scandal around the former star plant scientist, CNRS research director and currently ETH Zürich professor Oliver Voinnet is not over, and finally also some of his close collaborators and possible “partners in crime” start to feel the heat. One of Voinnet’s former co-authors is now being investigated by the French research society CNRS and the Swiss university ETH Zürich, according to the available information. It is likely to be Guillaume Moissiard.

A reader notified me about this September 8th 2016 news release on the site AlphaGalileo:

“Scientific misconduct: CNRS and ETH Zurich are setting up a commission of inquiry

Over the past few weeks, serious doubt has emerged regarding the figures featuring in several Molecular Biology publications. The CNRS and ETH Zurich have decided to set up a scientific commission of inquiry, with CNRS in the lead and contribution from ETH Zurich, which will be composed of experts. Their role will be to establish the facts.

In this context, institutions have a duty to act in strict compliance with ethical standards, which do not allow any public statement to be issued prior to completion of the process in order to ensure that an in-depth analysis is carried out, in which all parties can freely express their views. In the same logic and to guarantee that the inquiry is conducted serenely, the name of the experts forming part of the commission cannot be disclosed at this stage.

When the process is completed, the two institutions will decide if disciplinary measures have to be taken. The results and the consequences of the inquiry will then be made public”.

Continue reading “Is Guillaume Moissiard that Voinnet co-author now under investigation by CNRS and ETH?”

Voinnet aftermath: ethical bankruptcy of academic elites

Voinnet aftermath: ethical bankruptcy of academic elites

Olivier Voinnet, the disgraced former star plant scientist and professor at ETH Zürich, is apparently on extended sick leave, his lab members have been redistributed to other research groups inside the faculty. This I learned from several independent sources, which made the information sufficiently reliable to share here. Previously, Voinnet was investigated by two expert commissions, one very secret by CNRS at his former Institut de Biologie Moleculaire des Plantes (IBMP), and another, more transparent one, at ETH (report here, my overview of the Voinnet scandal here). There, the investigative team comprised of four peers, two of whom were Voinnet’s faculty colleagues, and one was Witold Filipowicz, professor at Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel. Filipowicz had been evaluating Voinnet’s research as IBMP review board member in 2008, before he nominated him for the 2009 EMBO Gold Medal:

“Olivier Voinnet’s discoveries represent true breakthroughs in his field. He has written several illuminating reviews recently, and participated as a speaker in many prestigious meetings. I consider him to be one of the most talented, original and effective young scientists”.

Update 8.04.2016: The supposedly impartial Voinnet investigator Filipowicz was also a recipient of the 2014 Chaire Gutenberg at Voinnet’s own IBMP as well as neighbouring IBMC in Strassbourg. The Gutenberg Chair is financed by the Alsace Region and the Urban Community of Strasbourg  with € 60,000 of which € 10,000 went to Filipowicz personally as ‘Gutenberg Prize’ and € 50,000 were awarded to his host, the teams of LabEx NetRNA of IBMP and IBMC. Coincidently, one of LabEx NetRNA teams is still headed by Voinnet’s  IBMP lab keeper and key partner in data manipulation, Patrice Dunoyer.

Under such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the ETH investigative commission concluded that Voinnet’s research was still largely reliable, despite his inexplicably compulsive urge to manipulate his perfectly good experimental data. As ETH press release then announced, Voinnet research was “Conducted properly – published incorrectly”. Well, this depends what ETH leadership understands under proper research.

Below I will show evidence from Voinnet’s peers that the published experimental evidence for his bold discoveries was shaky even before the data manipulations were discovered. Finally, I could not find a single lab which could confirm to me that they reproduced his results. Continue reading “Voinnet aftermath: ethical bankruptcy of academic elites”

Olivier Voinnet case: correcting the uncorrectable

Olivier Voinnet case: correcting the uncorrectable

The case of the former star plant scientist Olivier Voinnet is being quietly concluded. After now seven paper retractions, more than twice as many controversial corrections and after his misconduct was made official by the investigative commission of the ETH Zürich, the institutions, journals and a number of scientific peers are showing all the intention for this scandal to become quietly forgotten, as some kind of damage control. Some of them may have learned this lesson in research integrity and drawn consequences. Others: quite the opposite, which sends a dangerous message to the academic community and public about their attitude to problematic science.

Some weeks ago, the journal RNA has issued a controversial corrigendum where every single figure was “corrected” due to excessive data manipulation (Moissiard et al, 2007). And now, the elite journal Science has decided NOT to retract, but instead to correct a certain Voinnet paper (Deleris et al, 2006), despite earlier retraction decision by the investigative commission and the numerous data manipulations Voinnet now admits. Thus, Science editors have placed their authority above that of the scientist peers who were thoroughly examining Voinnet’s misconduct. This is so far the crown of a series of rather controversial corrections for Voinnet.  The journal also corrects two other Voinnet papers (Navarro et al, 2006 and Dunoyer et al, 2010, the latter has been already corrected twice previously). With these two Errata in Science (here and here), it is Dunoyer who takes all responsibility for manipulated data.

More of this creative correcting, or “Voinnetting”, of further publications by the EMBO Gold Medalist Voinnet is to be expected. Continue reading “Olivier Voinnet case: correcting the uncorrectable”