Call to research integrity, or at least a minor revolution at CNRS

Call to research integrity, or at least a minor revolution at CNRS

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.

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CNRS hits back at the stream of misconduct evidence

CNRS hits back at the stream of misconduct evidence

The French scientific society CNRS, a huge country-wide network of research institutes and one of the most influential science institutions in Europe, had enough of me and my reporting. They now blocked me on Twitter, so I don’t spoil their celebration of a book by their senior director and chief of research integrity, Catherine Jessus. The book is titled “Étonnant vivant”, which translated roughly means “Amazing ways to improve your Life science publications with just a little bit of photoshop”. I previously reported about some examples of this art in Jessus publications, which CNRS did not really appreciate.

And of course CNRS did not take it lightly when my past reporting forced them to deal with the Olivier Voinnet affair, whose investigator was Jessus. Neither did they like my writings about another misconduct scandal she had very successfully kept under wraps, that around the former Voinnet postdoc Charles-Henri Lecellier, now CNRS group leader in Montpellier. What finally took the biscuit was my constant leaking of misconduct evidence and of internal information from the former Voinnet institute in Strasbourg,  Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP), or as I keep proposing to rebrand it, The Olivier Voinnet Institute for Research Integrity in Plant Sciences. CNRS initially tried it nicely, by sending the IBMP deputy director Jean-Luc Evrard to call me “baby”, then “idiot”, while instructing all other institute employees never to communicate with me, and eventually CNRS simply blocked me on Twitter.

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On this occasion, I will now bring more evidence on data rigging inside IBMP. Before dumping new evidence about the IBMP director Laurence Maréchal-Drouard, let us start with something traditional and well known, namely Voinnet and his sidekick Patrice Dunoyer, whose IBMP lab was supposed to be dissolved, but maybe he managed to save himself with a recent publication in Nature Plants.

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Voinnet’s CNRS investigator Catherine Jessus with own data integrity issues

Voinnet’s CNRS investigator Catherine Jessus with own data integrity issues

More suspected data manipulations in the papers by the French elite biologists. It was funny enough when the director and several lead figures at the Strasbourg CNRS institute for plant sciences IBMP, former home of the master data manipulator Olivier Voinnet, and even the institute’s evaluators, were found to sport quite a lot of shifty-looking data in their papers. This time, the irony is just too much. Catherine Jessus, developmental biologist specialising on cell cycle research on oocytes and director of CNRS l’Institut des sciences biologiques (INSB) was in charge of two misconduct cases, and now the data integrity of her own papers is called in question. One investigation led by Jessus was about, whom else, Voinnet and his IBMP sidekick Patrice Dunoyer. In summer 2015, Voinnet was barred from CNRS for 2 years (which sounds worse than it is, because his professorship at ETH Zürich in Switzerland remained untouched, read here), and Dunoyer was suspended for one entire month. Jessus’ secret investigation ended with no documents whatsoever but a terse press release made available to outsiders. Both Voinnet and Dunoyer are by now back to publishing papers in prestigious journals.

Jessus was also in charge of dealing with the misconduct evidence against Voinnet’s former postdoc Charles-Henri Lecellier, whom the mighty plant scientist (according to my sources) banned from his Strasbourg lab because he did not trust his research results. It seems Lecellier started to fudge data already during his PhD at CNRS Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris (PubPeer record here). Imagine how bad it must get that Voinnet expels you for data manipulation! The tenured CNRS researcher was hence moved out of Voinnet’s sight, to work as group leader at the Institut de Génétique Moléculaire de Montpellier, where he continued his own line of data rigging, helped by his trusted friend from IBMP, Guillaume Vetter (see my earlier reporting for a German magazine here and here). Apparently, with full protection from CNRS: in 2013 Jessus actively opposed on behalf of CNRS the impending retraction of a Lecellier co-authored paper, despite earlier misconduct findings against his partner Vetter at the University of Luxembourg (evidence here, especially this letter, example of data manipulations here).

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Voinnet’s sidekick Dunoyer welcomed at Nature Plants, despite retractions and admitted misconduct

Voinnet’s sidekick Dunoyer welcomed at Nature Plants, despite retractions and admitted misconduct

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”.

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CNRS lab of Voinnet’s right hand Patrice Dunoyer dissolved by director’s decree

CNRS lab of Voinnet’s right hand Patrice Dunoyer dissolved by director’s decree

The hammer has fallen. The lab of misconduct-tainted plant scientist Patrice Dunoyer at the CNRS Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP) in Strasbourg, France, has been closed with a 48 hour notice, following the decision of the institute’s director Laurence Maréchal-Drouard. The (now former) lab members were informed by general mailing list announcement; the reasons for closure were officially “not related to integrity concerns”. The only good news for Dunoyer is that he is tenured, and cannot be sacked for his previous research misconduct, because CNRS already punished him for it with a whole one-month suspension.

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The stinking fish of Strasbourg

The stinking fish of Strasbourg

There is a popular saying: “A fish stinks from the head down”. This is what the situation starts to look like for French CNRS Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes (IBMP) in Strasbourg, also unofficially known as “The Olivier Voinnet Institute for Research Integrity in Plant Sciences”, after its most famous former research director. A publication from the lab of the institute’s head, Laurence Maréchal-Drouard, seems to contain evidence of inappropriate data manipulation. The gel shown in Figure 1A of Salinas et al 2014, seems to have “no less than 4 copies of a background patch”, according to a concerned reader who contacted me with this evidence. Drouard herself did not reply to my email, possibly because she and her entire CNRS institute are banned from communicating with me.

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The IBMP director Laurence Drouard as now part of data integrity tumult herself. The background in this published gel lane from her lab seems to be duplicated four times. 

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Susana Rivas: a new research integrity scandal in French plant sciences

Susana Rivas: a new research integrity scandal in French plant sciences

Susana Rivas, a CNRS research group leader from the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) in Toulouse is now at the epicenter of a new research integrity scandal in plant sciences. In the last two years, France was shaken by the Olivier Voinnet scandal, when their former star researcher was found guilty of data manipulation throughout his entire career, from his PhD at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, UK, over his position of many years as research director at CNRS plant science institute in Strasbourg up to his current professorship at the ETH Zürich in Switzerland. Before she became CNRS group leader in 2003, the Spanish plant scientist Rivas worked as postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory, in the lab of Jonathan Jones, at around the same time when Voinnet was finishing his PhD there under David Baulcombe. Now, Jones retracted a paper authored by Rivas from the journal The Plant Cell, he also requested the retraction of another paper from his lab with Rivas as first author, in The Plant Journal. Meanwhile, I share here new evidence of suspected data manipulations from Rivas’ own lab in Toulouse, in her 5 publications which include PNAS, PLOS One, The Plant Cell and Nature Communications. Continue reading “Susana Rivas: a new research integrity scandal in French plant sciences”