Olivier Voinnet, a researcher at ETH in Zurich who has corrected a number of his papers following critiques on PubPeer dating from late last year, is retracting a 2004 paper in The Plant Cell, according to the journal’s publisher.
Voinnet, the winner of the 2013 Rössler Prize, is a high-profile scientist, and scrutiny of his work has only grown since the initial revelations. In an unusual move, the journal and its publisher, the American Society of Plant Biologists, put out a press release about the situation today. Here’s the statement:
In response to recent inquiries concerning a publication by Dr. Olivier Voinnet in The Plant Cell, the American Society of Plant Biologists and The Plant Cell release the following statement:
We confirm that one of three reviewers of the original submission of the Dunoyer et al. 2004 paper in The Plant Cell [“Probing the microRNA and small interfering RNA pathways with virusencoded suppressors of RNA silencing” by Patrice Dunoyer, Charles-Henri Lecellier, Eneida Abreu Parizotto, Christophe Himber, and Olivier Voinnet (Plant Cell 16: 1235-1250)] voiced concerns about veracity in the manuscript. We are grateful for this reviewer’s diligence. The then Editor-in-Chief of The Plant Cell followed up on the charges made concerning the declined manuscript.
The corresponding author, Dr. Olivier Voinnet, provided a detailed response to the reviewer’s allegations which, at the time, satisfied both the Editor-in-Chief and the Co-Editor. A new manuscript was later submitted and accepted after peer review.
We note that no one representing The Plant Cell or its staff visited Dr. Voinnet’s laboratory in the context of this matter. We also note that release of confidential reviews is counter to our policies. No one representing the journal disclosed or discussed the reviews or the names of reviewers with the authors of the paper or with anyone else, outside of journal staff and editorial board members charged with handling the assessment of the manuscript.
Dr. Voinnet contacted the journal editors on March 27, 2015, and requested a retraction of the above-mentioned Dunoyer et al. 2004 publication. The editors have requested further information from the authors in order to complete this request.
Some background: The “no one representing The Plant Cell or its staff visited Dr. Voinnet’s laboratory in the context of this matter” would seem to be responding to a comment on PubPeer last week posted by Vicki Vance of the University of South Carolina. After confirming with Vance that she did in fact leave the comment, we’ve been trying to confirm some of its details, one of which was that The Plant Cell visited Voinnet’s lab “to check for discrepancies on the reported data.
The journal’s statement doesn’t mean that no one from The Plant Cell visited Voinnet’s lab, of course. As Rich Jorgensen, who was editor in chief of the journal when Voinnet published the paper, but was speaking generally because he has not been editor since 2007, told us last week:
It is conceivable that an editor who happened to be handling an article might visit the author’s lab for other reasons, such as a seminar visit, and that the handling editor and author discussed revisions to a paper that had received a decision from the journal, if the author brought it up with the editor, but that is not something the journal itself would seek to do formally; it would simply be an informal interaction between the author and editor, similar to what is often done by phone or email to help an author better understand an editor’s decision and expectations for revision or resubmission. Perhaps such a conversation occurred in this case.
Vance, one of the original reviewers of the paper, wrote that she spotted a “number of problems” with the 2004 Plant Cell paper – about ways plant viruses try to suppress RNA silencing — after reviewing it three times for three separate journals.
Among the problems was the control for Figure 2. He had crossed an RNAi line to a bunch of lines expressing different viral suppressors of silencing, so the control should have been the RNAi line crossed to a WT plant, but he had used the homozygous RNAi line as a control. I said that in my review.
It was then that I noticed that he now claimed that the control for Figure 2 was the RNAi line crossed to a WT plant (the control I said it should have been in the previous review). However, the northern blot was the exact same blot (I still had the G&D version on my computer and it was exactly the same). So it was clearly a lie. I said as much in my EMBO J. review…
EMBO Journal editor-in-chief Bernd Pulverer tells Retraction Watch:
I am aware of comments on PubPeer in the name of Vicki Vance. While we have a well established transparent peer review process at The EMBO Journal, we do not share reports or details on manuscripts that are not published for reasons of author confidentiality. I can therefore at this time neither confirm nor deny these comments.
Vance said the paper was again rejected from EMBO Journal, and she received a request to review it again for Plant Cell. Figure 2 had been changed to its original version, but Vance noticed other problems with “Probing the MicroRNA and Small Interfering RNA Pathways with Virus-Encoded Suppressors of RNA Silencing”:
The paper still had issues among which was the report that they had 7 independent homozygous HC-Pro lines. I noted that no other labs had been able to get a homozygous HC-Pro line (we had tried pretty hard) and yet, somehow they had gotten 7 independent ones. I said I didn’t believe it. When the Plant Cell paper was published, they now said none of the lines were homozygous. So basically, I don’t believe anything from that lab since that time.
The paper has been cited 332 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge. We’ve been trying to reach Voinnet for comment since last week, and will update with anything we learn.
Update 12:30 p.m. 6/3/15: The retraction is official; read the full notice here.
Hat tip: Leonid Schneider
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