A personal tale of scientific misconduct

A personal tale of scientific misconduct

The Portuguese cancer researcher Sonia Melo was found guilty of “negligence in handling and presenting data” in her publications by the European life science society EMBO; she and her doctoral advisor Manel Esteller also had to retract a paper (Melo et al, Nature Genetics 41, 365–370, 2009). Despite further image irregularities in his other publications (where Melo was not a co-author), Esteller was tasked by his Spanish research institution IDIBELL to investigate himself.  As Principal Investigator (PI) he cannot be responsible to vouchsafe data integrity in his own papers, decreed IDIBELL leadership (of which he is actually part of).

The French plant scientist Olivier Voinnet still enjoys full institutional protection of his Swiss university ETH Zürich, despite his self-admitted misconduct. However, before he acknowledged to have been excessively manipulating data in his own papers, his subordinate researcher Patrice Dunoyer accepted sole responsibility. When the first retraction (of currently seven) hit, the retraction notice  of Dunoyer et al., Plant Cell 2004 read: “We wish to state that the first author, Patrice Dunoyer, was solely involved in generating the erroneous figure panels”. Dunoyer’s reward for such loyalty: despite a confidential CNRS investigation against him, he was also allowed to remain in his permanent position as group leader.

Most recently, Cell Press was faced with a dilemma. It was contacted by a junior author, Yao-Yun Liang, who admitted to have “manipulated the experiments to achieve predetermined results” in the papers in Cell and Molecular Cell. It is safe to assume this whistleblower also provided solid evidence, since Cell Press issued two Expressions of Concern (here and here). The last author, Xin-Hua Feng from Baylor College of Medicine in USA, denied everything “citing concerns about Liang’s motives and credibility”. Yet, this being Cell of Elsevier, the publisher simply tasked Feng with investigating himself. He was invited to reproduce the flagged experiments elsewhere, presumably followed by some “Voinnetting”, namely to use those to correct his manipulated paper. Unfortunately, I did not succeed reaching out to Liang, also his past collaborators did not know his current whereabouts. Feng, unsurprisingly, did not reply at all.

One can continue listing ad nauseam examples of retractions, corrections and expressions of concern where a junior author was assigned the exclusive blame, while the PI was presented as a hapless victim. It seems labs all over the world are truly infested by ruthless scheming PhD students and postdocs, whose only goal in life is to bite the hand that feeds them. The innocent PI is guilty of nothing more than keeping such snakes at his honest bosom, this is at least how universities and journals like to publicly present the instances of research misconduct. No-one wants reputational damage or loss of funding to hit their faculty, or to lose important contributors of exciting research papers. However, the reality is often somewhat more complicated. Continue reading “A personal tale of scientific misconduct”

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 loses EMBO Gold Medal, Sonia Melo investigated by EMBO

News piece:

The former star plant scientist Olivier Voinnet, currently professor at the Swiss elite university ETH Zürich has now had the most prestigious award bestowed by the European life science research society EMBO, the EMBO Gold medal, revoked. Prior to this, he admitted misconduct and data manipulation in dozens of his papers, seven of which were retracted. His funding by the Swiss National Fund was frozen and he was banned from further funding for 3 years.


Below the announcement of EMBO director Maria Leptin, sent out to EMBO members on January 28th, 2016: Continue reading “Olivier Voinnet loses EMBO Gold Medal, Sonia Melo investigated by EMBO”

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”