High-profile biologist is suspended after two investigations found he “breached his duty of care”, committed “misconduct”
High-profile plant biologist Olivier Voinnet has been suspended for two years from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) following the results of two investigations that revealed a number of issues in his publication record.
Another investigation at CNRS, where Voinnet also works as a researcher, also found “the existence of deliberate chart/diagram manipulations” — while not “fabrication,” these breaches “amount to scientific misconduct,” according to a press release about the report.
The ETH committee uncovered multiple errors, from the “mere confusion of correct and incorrect figures” to “the ‘beautification’ of figures,” but said that it was not scientific misconduct, according to ETH guidelines:
- …in the publications in which incorrect figures were used, the scientific conclusions are fully substantiated by the available raw data.
- Based on the findings of the commission of inquiry, the Executive Board of ETH Zurich has concluded that this is not a case of scientific misconduct as defined in ETH Zurich’s Rules of Procedure.
The ETH report
, which only covered work conducted at ETH, found “errors of varying severity” in 20 of the 32 studies they looked into.
The committee made an important distinction for Voinnet that the studies had been “conducted properly” but “published incorrectly.”
In the publications produced at ETH Zurich, the commission found errors in a total of five publications, ranging from the “beautification” of figures to the mere confusion of correct and incorrect figures. Serious errors were identified in two of these five publications. In some cases, the figures had been edited for internal use and then published in error. The commission examined raw data and documentation from the experiments that were carried out; these were complete and correct and substantiated the scientific conclusions made in the publications. Therefore, the processing of the figures led to no scientific advantage. Based on the findings of the commission of inquiry (PDF, 139 KB), the Executive Board of ETH Zurich has concluded that this is not a case of scientific misconduct as defined by the Rules of Procedure.
However, the researcher has breached ETH Zurich’s binding Guidelines for Research Integrity and Good Scientific Practice at the ETH Zurich. The guidelines state that project managers should take an active role in the management and supervision of junior scientists as part of their research. In this regard, and in the handling of figures, Voinnet clearly breached his duty of care. For this conduct, Voinnet will receive an admonition from the president of ETH Zurich.
In a separate inquiry, the CNRS committee found that Voinnet’s mistakes constitute scientific misconduct, but made a similar distinction between Voinnet’s actions and outright fraud.
The commission of inquiry has established the existence of deliberate chart/diagram manipulations, in breach of the ethical standards applicable to the presentation of scientific results. This involved modifications and duplications of diagrams/charts or erroneous captions. Such inappropriate presentation of experimental data, however, does not amount to fabrication.
Naturally, these mistakes will still have a serious impact.
These violations, which do however amount to scientific misconduct, have tarnished the reputation of the CNRS and of research at large. Consequently, the CNRS President has conferred with the disciplinary committee and taken appropriate measures, in accordance with procedures applicable to civil servants.
A spokesperson for CNRS said that the committee isn’t required to publish the proceedings of inquires, but decided to post their decision on Voinnet with full names withheld. The statement, which the spokesperson sent us directly, spells out the consequences for Voinnet.
Mr. V, a 1st class research director is suspended for two years from the decision putting an end to his temporary assignment.
ETH said that Voinnet’s group will now work with “an external advisor”, and has been encouraged to adopt “the introduction of electronic laboratory notebooks in the group’s laboratories” to help track their work. Correction notices and retractions will be published for every “erroneous” study.
Professor Detlef Günther, Vice President for Research and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich, said that Voinnet’s cooperation had an impact on their decision.
“It must be clear to all researchers at ETH that we do not tolerate conduct of this kind. Voinnet failed to exercise the same care in publishing the data as he did when conducting and validating the experiments.” In Voinnet’s case, the Executive Board takes into account the fact that the experiments were performed correctly and, therefore, that the scientific conclusions in the publications are not being called into question. In addition, Voinnet has cooperated with the investigation from the start, has made his own proposals for correcting the problematic conduct, seriously regrets the errors he made and has contributed to a resolution of the errors by supplying the associated raw data. ETH Vice President Günther explains the Executive Board’s position as follows: “For these reasons, the measures focus on facilitating the group’s continued research activities, but also on rectifying the obvious shortcomings in the handling of figures.
In a response included in the report, Voinnet said that he regrets “not exercising the necessary care,” and offered an apology to his colleagues.
Olivier Voinnet takes complete responsibility for the errors made in the publications, saying: “I very much regret not exercising the necessary care during the publication process, and I take complete responsibility for all errors. I sincerely apologise for the uncertainty and difficulty this has caused members of my group and my colleagues. In future, I will work with the utmost care when publishing data. I would like to express my deep gratitude to ETH Zurich for its comprehensive investigation of the accusations against me, and for supporting me despite these errors. The university has placed its trust in me and I will not let them down.” Voinnet has begun to submit corrigenda relating to publications with erroneous figures, some of which have already been accepted. Two publications have been retracted in recent months based on the commission’s recommendation.
Problems for Voinnet originally began when he received “an anonymous email” pointing out problems with his work. Afterwards, his research was heavily criticized on PubPeer, and more than half a dozen corrections have already been published for figures created in his lab.
We’ve contacted Voinnet and ETH for statements and we’ll update with any reply.
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