The story about Olivier Voinnet, a high-profile plant biologist whose work has fallen under scrutiny, continues to build momentum. Late last week, Voinnet’s employer and one of his funders announced they were investigating his work, and one of the peer reviewers of a soon-to-be-retracted paper has made her original report public.
Here’s the statement from CNRS, which funds Voinnet:
Over the past few months, a number of anonymous comments have been posted on the PubPeer website to report diagram/chart manipulations concerning around thirty articles signed or co-signed by Olivier Voinnet, CNRS senior researcher currently on secondment at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.
Faced with these allegations, the CNRS set up a commission of inquiry, made up of leading experts. In a context where the works of a significant number of researchers have been massively and anonymously called into question, public institutions have a duty to act in strict compliance with legal and ethical standards. These standards do not allow any public statement to be issued prior to completion of the procedure, in order to ensure that an in-depth analysis of the situation is carried out, in which all parties can freely express their views. The CNRS abides by these rules, which guarantee rigor and fundamental protection of the rights of individuals. The organization will of course face its responsibilities.
Irrespective of the works of this commission, the CNRS notes at this stage that these public allegations referred to the presentation of certain charts/diagrams but that, to its knowledge, no declaration has challenged the overall results obtained by Olivier Voinnet and his colleagues on the role of small RNAs in the regulation of gene expression and antiviral response — these results having been confirmed on several occasions, whether using the same or other material, by various teams worldwide.
And here’s a statement from ETH Zurich:
Allegations that were made online against an ETH professor have now been picked up in the media. On learning of the accusations, ETH Zurich immediately appointed an investigative commission.
ETH Zurich became aware in January of internet comments expressing the suspicion that images may have been manipulated in publications. Olivier Voinnet, Professor of RNA Biology at ETH Zurich, is listed as author or co-author of these publications. The allegations, published on the websites PubPeer and Retraction Watch, concern the illustrations in these publications; the studies’ findings are not in doubt.
ETH Zurich takes these allegations very seriously. The university’s Executive Board instructed Professor Detlef Günther, ETH Zurich Vice President for Research and Corporate Relations, to immediately set up an investigative commission tasked with conducting a judicious and impartial assessment of the situation. The investigation will be led by a four-person commission and chaired by an external expert independent of the ETH Executive Board. All relevant publications will be examined. Since the investigation will be comprehensive, it is not yet clear when the commission will deliver its findings. ETH Zurich will give a full report as soon as all the facts have been satisfactorily established. ETH Zurich has also established contact with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Cambridge. Both of these institutions are also named in these allegations and have set up their own independent investigative commissions.
ETH Zurich has a Procedure to address allegations of research misconduct at the ETH Zurich that applies in this case. The investigation will adhere strictly to this defined process. The investigative commission will submit its report to the Executive Board, which will then determine, on the basis of the facts presented, the next steps and any required measures.
“These allegations have come as a surprise to the Executive Board at ETH Zurich. Olivier Voinnet is a scientist whose outstanding research findings have been confirmed repeatedly by other research groups,” says Günther. “In order to make an assessment of the allegations, we must await the findings of the investigative commission. It is now of the utmost importance – both for ETH and for Olivier Voinnet – that we allow the investigative commission the time and space they need to carry out their work and deliver an independent evaluation. We will therefore wait until we have received the commission’s report before issuing any further comment.”
We found some of the language in the announcements puzzling. Call us old-fashioned, but generally it’s a good idea to actually do an investigation before saying that “the studies’ findings are not in doubt.”
Apparently, Vicki Vance, who raised the red flag more than a decade ago about a to-be-retracted paper by Voinnet and colleagues in Plant Cell, also had some concerns. Vance has posted her original peer review of the manuscript at ResearchGate, and has also sent an open letter to both institutions. An excerpt:
…I have read that the posts showing fabrication of data in the figures of many of Prof. Voinnet’s articles were viewed by some people as having little importance. The rationale being provided is that the results are still valid because other labs have been able to show the same results. That is NOT completely true. The practice of fabrication of data by the Voinnet lab has had serious negative impact on the field of RNA silencing. Many investigators are, in fact, not able to repeat some aspects of his reported results or have conflicting data. However, once results are published in high impact journals by a powerful and important senior investigator such as Prof. Voinnet, there is little chance to get funding to pursue conflicting data and further experimental approaches are stalled. I am a tenured scientist, approaching academic retirement and can therefore afford to bring these items to light. However, because the consequences of Prof. Voinnet’s unethical behavior are not yet clear, many scientists more junior than I am are afraid to speak up and risk the wrath of Prof. Voinnet, should he remain the powerful force he has been in the past.
In summary, I think that Prof. Voinnet’s unethical behavior has damaged the field immensely because it is no longer clear what is true in his work and what is fabricated. In my opinion, these are serious incidences of scientific misconduct and I hope that your investigations will consider them as such.
We’ve made Vance’s entire letter available here.
The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), of which Voinnet is a member, is awaiting the outcomes of the institutional investigations before considering next steps.
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