Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

EMBO takes back Voinnet’s award, investigates other awardee who just lost a Nature Genetics paper

with 7 comments

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 11.41.20 AMEMBO has taken back an award given to beleaguered plant biologist Olivier Voinnet in 2009, and is investigating a recent grantee who had a paper retracted from Nature Genetics yesterday.

The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) “promotes excellence in the life sciences” in Europe, in part by awarding prizes to promising young scientists. Voinnet and Sonia Melo earned their awards by exhibiting potential as young scientists studying genetics — of plants and cancer, respectively — but now EMBO is skeptical of the papers that formed the basis of their applications.

Melo’s Installation Grant from EMBO was announced just last month, and consists of 50,000 Euros annually for three to five years. She is currently based at the University of Porto, in Portugal.

Voinnet’s problems are well-documented on this blog — 21 corrections, seven retractions, and two investigations. Earlier this week, we reported that the Swiss National Science Foundation had cut off Voinnet’s funding, and banned him for three years.

According to Leonid Schneider, EMBO director Maria Leptin sent a memo to members today explaining that an investigation turned up problems with Voinnet’s papers, and that they were revoking a gold medal awarded to him in 2009, which came with a prize of 10,000 euros.

Leptin also told Schneider that the organization was investigating allegations against Melo, focusing on the papers she submitted as part of her recent installation grant.

Leptin confirmed to us that the memo reprinted on Schneider’s blog was accurate, but wouldn’t go into specifics about the allegations against Melo:

We will communicate further results only when the committee has reached a conclusion.

Yesterday, Nature Genetics retracted a 2009 paper that lists Melo as first author, which explores why human tumors show a lower expression of microRNAs. The retraction for “A TARBP2 mutation in human cancer impairs microRNA processing and DICER1 function” (cited 235 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge) notes it contained duplicated images:

We have recently become aware of the presence of duplicated images in the Figures 3 and 4 and Supplementary Figures 5 and 6 in our publication Nat. Genet. 41, 365370, 2009, that were assembled according to the specified author contributions. We therefore retract the publication for the sake of the high standards we expect for research and scientific journals. All the authors have signed this statement.

The retraction follows a correction for the paper published in 2010, pointing to another issue with a figure:

In the version of this article initially published, the colony formation assay image labeled “Co115.DICER1” was the incorrect image. The error has been corrected and a corrected version of Figure 4 panel e is provided in the HTML and PDF versions of the article.

Additional papers co-authored by Melo have been discussed on PubPeer, with some commenters suggesting they contain duplicated figures that claim to represent different experimental conditions.

In December, EMBO announced she would receive the organization’s Installation Grant, awarded to “talented young group leaders in establishing their laboratories.” The grant awardees receive

50,000 Euros annually for three to five years from their host countries. The nine grantees will also enter the network of EMBO Young Investigators, which helps them to integrate into the European scientific community.

The memo from Leptin explains the process behind revoking Voinnet’s medal:

Recent investigations following concerns about data manipulation in Olivier Voinnet’s publications have resulted in the retraction of several papers and the correction of others of which he is an author. To ensure that the prestige of the EMBO Gold Medal and the reputation of science more generally are maintained, EMBO Council at its 2015 annual meeting set up a committee to assess the allegations of data manipulation in Olivier Voinnet’s publications, and based on this assessment to determine what actions to take.

It continues:

In addition to considering the allegations concerning Olivier Voinnet’s publications that are already in the public domain, the committee carried out an independent investigation, focusing on the papers submitted as part of the nomination for the Gold Medal. The investigation identified a number of further cases of data manipulation in these publications in addition to those already discussed in the public domain, corrigenda and journal retraction notes.

The committee concluded that the manipulation of data in the publications authored by Voinnet was unacceptable for the proper reporting of research and devalued both science in general and the Gold Medal in particular. The committee therefore decided that EMBO would revoke its award of the Gold Medal to Olivier Voinnet.

Voinnet’s 2009 gold medal award came with a prize of 10,000 euros. The announcement that EMBO released at the time is filled with glowing praise for the scientist:

“Olivier Voinnet is one of the most extraordinary young scientists that I have encountered,” writes David Baulcombe, Professor of Botany at the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge, UK.

Baulcombe has since been a co-author on multiple retractions by Voinnet, including two of our top 10 most highly cited retractions.

According to the memo from Leptin, Voinnet has agreed to return the medal.

Update 2/2/16 9:23 a.m. eastern: We’ve received a statement from Sonia Melo:

Unfortunately the Nature Genetics manuscript got retracted because duplicated images were identified some even in the same panels of the same figure. This embarrassing error was not identified by anyone who has scrutinized the manuscript before publication, especially by myself, as the first author, who had a high responsibility in carefully looking at the final manuscript. The first version of the submitted manuscript shows that the figures were accurate without the duplication that appeared in the final version. The published correction (2010) to the manuscript happened because one of these mistakes was identified soon after the original publication. At that time point this was taken as an isolated error, which happened during final figure assembly of the images. Unfortunately, I failed to see the other duplicated images in the manuscript. The raw data registered in the Lab notebooks shows to be correct, the original submission files do not have duplicated images and therefore I stand by the data reported in the manuscript and it is my aim to re-publish this original work in a near future.

As for further comments/concerns, which arose on pubpeer, the authors and respective institutions have not ignored them. All concerns were addressed, raw data registered on notebooks was analysed and reports developed for each case. The data was shown to be correct so no further action was taken.

EMBO was informed of all these facts and is evaluating if these affect my evaluation for the EMBO Installation Grant I was recently awarded. As I previously said, I stand by every bit of data published in the papers I co-author. There was no effort to commit fraud. I regret the lack of diligence I have shown with the Nature Genetics manuscript, my first manuscript as a PhD student, and the confusion it has caused to the readership and my colleagues. Until now, and because the Nature Genetics retraction process was ongoing, I chose to remain silent. I was not and will not be available to participate in discussions that occur under the auspices of anonymous contributions and unclear moderation. I am however available to answer further questions that aim at clarifying open issues and that contribute to increase the transparency due to the scientific process. Therefore, if any entity or organization wants to formally contact me, I will be happy to provide any details required.

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Comments
  • KK January 29, 2016 at 4:11 am

    this is the problem with giving awards based on “high” profile publications. Two cases now and to save the reputation, would it be better for the committee to include a clause that in case of proven misconduct issues, the award will be revoked! or something like that..

  • Gary January 29, 2016 at 9:15 am

    Indeed – or perhaps I future they look a little harder at the papers they aim to give awards for.

  • Dave Fernig January 30, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Hats off to EMBO, who take action.

  • JeromE February 1, 2016 at 8:40 am

    “In addition to considering the allegations concerning Olivier Voinnet’s publications that are already in the public domain, the committee carried out an independent investigation, focusing on the papers submitted as part of the nomination for the Gold Medal.”

    So, prizes are awarded on whatever weak basis.
    And if there is trouble, then we reserve the right to actually read the papers, right?

    As RetractionWatch shows, it is already a pain to fix the publication procedure which serves a serious purpose. Could we please stop taking medals seriously?

  • fernandopessoa February 2, 2016 at 5:03 am

    EMBO should go back to its list of candidates for the prize that year and award the prize to whoever was number 2 on that list (of course after checking that person’s publications).

  • fernandopessoa February 2, 2016 at 10:57 am

    “As for further comments/concerns, which arose on pubpeer, the authors and respective institutions have not ignored them. All concerns were addressed, raw data registered on notebooks was analysed and reports developed for each case. The data was shown to be correct so no further action was taken.”

    The concerns on pubpeer started between August 12th 2015 and January 28th 2016:-

    August 12th, 2015 8:21pm UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/EB26CFF7EAE4F3E766EF305622527B

    August 12th, 2015 9:00am UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/19219043

    August 13th, 2015 9:54am UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/19219043

    August 13th, 2015 2:24pm UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/C729E05C2FCE20FCBF28D64F4B494F

    September 28th, 2015 10:37am UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/21368194

    October 7th, 2015 2:32pm UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/23274427

    November 5th, 2014 7:14pm UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/2971EE7D7625B040F9E6EC82E0B8EE

    January 28th, 2016 4:16pm UTC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/20802525

    It might be possible for the institutions to evaluate the comments and refer to the original data in that time, but the ones which first came under scrutiny in November 2015 and January 2016 are quite recent, and there may not have been time.

  • publico March 2, 2016 at 9:21 am

    http://www.embo.org/news/press-releases/press-releases-2015/nine-scientists-receive-embo-installation-grants

    As of 29 February 2016, Sonia Melo EMBO installation grant has been withdrawn.

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