Yoshinori Watanabe data manipulations: much worse than officially presented

Yoshinori Watanabe data manipulations: much worse than officially presented

Earlier this months, a research misconduct scandal in molecular cell biology broke out in the big news. Yoshinori Watanabe, Japanese researcher of cell division and how cells separate their replicated DNA during mitosis and meiosis, was found guilty of scientific misconduct by his University of Tokyo (read the news here and here). This followed an investigation initiated in the fall of 2016, after anonymous whistleblowers submitted to the university a report accusing 6 Tokyo research groups of data manipulation, first and foremost, Watanabe (I managed to obtain this dossier, and publish it below).

As the outcome of the University of Tokyo investigations, which concluded on May 31st 2017, misconduct was determined in 5 publications from Watanabe’s lab, which appeared between 2008 and 2015 in the elite journals like Science, Nature and Nature Cell Biology. However, the whistleblower dossier lists 7 papers, one of them a paper in Cell from 2015 with duplicated gel images, and a 2011 EMBO Reports paper which contains a western blot which was obviously digitally retouched to remove unwanted bands. Watanabe’s assistant professor Yuji Tanno was also found guilty of misconduct, and indeed his 2015 Science paper with Watanabe looks like a total train wreck of data manipulations.  Yet it seems there is a tendency to present Watanabe’s deeds as mere mistakes (though grossly inappropriate ones) by a great genius scientist, who was confused by the complexity of rules on data acquisition and incidentally broke some while producing outstanding and absolutely reliable top-level research. Some of his peers seem to be calling for leniency or at least some understanding for Watanabe. The selected evidence from the whistleblower dossier which I post below suggests that Watanabe knew perfectly well what he was doing, and he did so in order to produce desirable results which his lab experiments failed to deliver, and which he needed in order to impress the choosy elite journals.

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Fishy peer review at Science, by citizen scientist Ted Held

Fishy peer review at Science, by citizen scientist Ted Held

Sweden and the international research community recently faced yet another research misconduct scandal. It was about a Science paper by Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv, which in 2016 made worldwide headlines with its findings that young fish larvae (or fry), namely Eurasian perch, would eat up plastic pollution like teenagers eat fast food. It soon turned out the research was apparently never performed as described, the original data was missing (allegedly stored only on a laptop, which was then stolen from a car), the results likely made up. The Lönnstedt & Eklöv 2016 paper received an editorial expression of concern in December 2016 and was eventually retracted on May 26th 2017 following misconduct findings by the Swedish Central Ethics Review Board (CEPN), while the two Swedish whistleblowers Josefin Sundin and Fredrik Jutfelt, initially themselves stiffly criticised by the University of Uppsala, were finally exonerated (see panel verdict here and here, further documents here and here).  I also make available here the original report by the whistleblowers to the University of Uppsala and CEPN, detailing their “Key points highlighting scientific misconduct by Lönnstedt and Eklöv”. For further reference, read Martin Enserink’s reporting for Science here, here and here.

However, there was more to that Science paper than fraudulent science. Even if the results were not made up, their objective scientific value would still be very questionable, because it had very little connection to the reality of the plastic pollution in the oceans and the fish feeding behavior. The uniformly small, freshly industrially synthesized plastic balls which were fed to the fishes were not really representative of the actual plastic particles polluting our seas. But even those arbitrary chosen particles were not likely to have been eaten by the fishes voluntarily. If the fishes ever did swallow those, it was probably because they were simply made to, being at the point of death by starvation, something which rarely ever happens to actual plankton-feeding fishes in the sea. Of course one cannot expect peer reviewers to spot misconduct and data manipulation, but objectively assessing scientific methodology, result and conclusions of a manuscript is actually what the peer review is all about. One does wonder why the “highly qualified, dedicated” reviewers at Science failed to notice all these obvious scientific shortcomings, and instead decided that Lönnstedt & Eklöv work belonged indeed to “the very best in scientific research”. Was it because the socially and ecologically relevant conclusions sounded so important and welcome, that one simply had to blindly ignore the poor science behind them?

Continue reading “Fishy peer review at Science, by citizen scientist Ted Held”

Voinnet retraction brings entire school of thought crashing down

Voinnet retraction brings entire school of thought crashing down

Another retraction hits the fallen star plant scientist Olivier Voinnet. This time it is a previously corrected paper in Science, which was pulled after new evidence of further data manipulations appeared on PubPeer some months after its 3rd correction.

This makes it Voinnet’s 8th retraction, but the loss of the Dunoyer et al 2010 paper is more than just another brick falling from his great publishing record edifice. It is one of the two pillars of an entire school of thought in the field of plant pathogen defence, which we now witness crumbling into dust (see my earlier report and a brief summary below).

The Dunoyer et al 2010 paper has been corrected twice before (both are behind paywall, the one from April 15th 2011 acknowledges image reuse: “The image in Fig. 3B (center panel) was previously published as Fig. 1e in P. Dunoyer et al., Nat. Genet. 39, 848 (2007)”). The third correction from January 22nd 2016 declared a shopping list of further image irregularities, with Patrice Dunoyer taking full responsibility, just like he did on many other occasions (see my earlier report here).

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Evidence posted on PubPeer in July 2016 which caused retraction of Dunoyer et al 2010

Continue reading “Voinnet retraction brings entire school of thought crashing down”

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”