Voinnet notches second retraction, two more corrections

PNASOlivier Voinnet — a plant researcher who was recently suspended for two years from the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) after an investigation by ETH Zurich and CNRS found evidence of misconduct — has issued his second retraction and two more corrections.

PNAS posted the retraction earlier this week for a 2006 article after an inspection of the raw data revealed “errors” in study images. Authors confirmed the issues in some figures and revealed “additional mounting mistakes” in others.

Voinnet has promised to issue retractions and corrections for every study that requires them. These latest notices bring our tally up to nine corrections, two retractions and one Expression of Concern.

The retracted paper, “RNA silencing of host transcripts by cauliflower mosaic virus requires coordinated action of the four Arabidopsis Dicer-like proteins,” examined how the cauliflower mosaic virus shuts down antiviral defenses in plants. Last fall, users raised potential issues with the paper on PubPeer. It has been cited 146 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

Here’s more from the retraction notice:

The authors wish to note, “Recently, potential errors affecting some of our figures were brought to our attention. Through the inspection of the corresponding original raw data, we have confirmed there were errors in Figs. 1 C and 2 B, Left, E, Top Left and Bottom, and F, Right. While we have also confirmed that Fig. 2 E, Top Right, and F, Left, are not erroneous, our own inspection of all the remaining figures revealed additional mounting mistakes.

“Although these errors could have been corrected with the
original raw data and were recognized as inadvertent we, the authors, consider them too numerous and have thus decided to retract the study on this basis. We will seek to submit the corrected version of this article for peer review elsewhere.

“Olivier Voinnet, the corresponding author, takes full responsibility for the errors contained in the original publication. We deeply apologize for the inconvenience caused.”

When asked for a comment, a spokesperson for PNAS gave us a brief statement.

Thank you for your message. The editors and authors agreed that the article should be retracted.

The journal also published a correction for a 1999 study co-authored by Voinnet, “Suppression of gene silencing: A general strategy used by diverse DNA and RNA viruses of plants,” which looked at how different mechanisms of plant viruses interact with plant genetics. It has been cited 676 times.

This study had also been flagged on PubPeer last year. Shortly after the comments were posted, a commenter saying he was last author David Baulcombe (a highly decorated scientist who also edited the retracted PNAS paper) announced on the site that he had contacted the journal and was looking into the problem.

In the notice, the authors reveal issues with study images, but assert “we are confident that the conclusions from the figure about the geminiviral suppressor AC2 are correct.”

Here’s the full notice:

The authors note, “The rRNA loading panels in Figs. 1D and 2D were inadvertently duplicated by Olivier Voinnet. Part of the image in Fig. 2D was also used in Figs. 3C and 5C, as explained in the respective legends. The experiments for Figs. 2, 3, and 5 were all run on the same agarose gel and blotted onto the same filter, to allow their direct comparison through the common reference dilution series seen in Figs. 2D, 3C, and 5C. The samples in Fig. 1D were run and blotted independently and it is therefore likely that the rRNA loading image in Fig. 1D, but not that in Fig. 2D, is erroneous. We no longer have the original files used for this paper and we are not able to provide the correct rRNA loading control to Fig. 1D. We recognize, therefore, that the equal loading of the samples in the figure is now not supported by the presented data. However, we are confident that the conclusions from the figure about the geminiviral suppressor AC2 are correct, as that interpretation was later confirmed in multiple independent publications.”

The PNAS spokesperson declined to add any information about the correction.

We have no further comments on the correction.

This month, The Plant Cell issued a correction for a 1998 paper that had also earned a PubPeer critique and a similar response from a commenter saying he was Baulcombe on the site.

The authors found that one of the study images “was a mock-up made during the drafting of the article” that was left in the final article, which examined how potato virus X silences genes in Nicotiana benthamiana. They write that the correction “does not affect any of the conclusions of the article.”

Here’s the full notice for “Initiation and maintenance of virus-induced gene silencing”:

An incorrect image was shown in Figure 5B of the original article, corresponding to RNA in vGFP-infected leaves sampled at 13 days postinoculation (DPI). The original published figure for this panel was a mock-up made during the drafting of the article and showed identical copies of the same image in lanes 2 to 5 and copies of a second image in lanes 6 and 7. The authors regret that the figure was not replaced with the correct images of the bona fide replicates prior to submission and publication of the article and that the error was not noticed previously.

The corrected figure and revised figure legend are presented below. This correction does not affect any of the conclusions of the article. The corrected images show, as stated in the original article, that PVX-GF levels were similar in the infected NT and GFP transgenic plants at 13 DPI, and PVX-GF is targeted by gene silencing at the 20-DPI time point and beyond in the GFP plants only. Results from independent experiments involving distinct PVX-GF inocula are depicted in the revised figure for both the 13- and 20-DPI time points. The authors confirm that no other irregularities or inappropriate manipulation of images or data took place for any other figures or data shown in the original article. O.V. performed the experiment, drafted the figure, and cowrote the text. D.C.B. cowrote the text and, as corresponding author, takes responsibility for the content of the article. First author M.T.R. was informed of the correction but was not involved in the experiment for this figure.

It has been cited 551 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

The journal’s editor-in-chief, Sabeeha Merchant, didn’t have much to add:

I thought the correction notice was pretty clear

In response to follow-up questions about the PubPeer comments, Merchant said:

We do not respond to anonymous posts about our papers

This particular one was initiated by the author

When asked to comment on the Plant Cell correction, Baulcombe told us:

I contacted the editor to ask how we should address this problem. Olivier Voinnet was able to present images of the original data as in the correction notice and the outcome is as you have seen.

When asked about the PNAS correction, Baulcombe added:

The same comment applies to the PNAS paper – I contacted the journal to ask for their suggestion as to how we should deal with the problem although noting  in this instance that Olivier Voinnet was not able to provide the original images. I wrote the correction note for the Plant Cell paper having heard from OV that the published figure was produced as a draft and used by mistake in the submitted article. The text was approved by first author and reviewed by the journal editors. The correction note for the PNAS paper was written by me, reviewed by the journal editors and approved by all authors.

Voinnet is a highly distinguished scientist who won the Rössler Prize in 2013 and was awarded the EMBO Gold Medal in 2009.

We’ve asked for a statement from Voinnet and Guillaume Moissiard, the first author of the retracted paper and a professor at ETH Zurich. We’ll update the post if they reply.

Hat tip: Anonymous and “j

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7 thoughts on “Voinnet notches second retraction, two more corrections”

  1. The lede of this story is wrong. The investigation by ETH specifically found “that this is NOT a case of scientific misconduct” (emphasis mine, quote theirs). CNRS did say it amounted to misconduct, however.

    1. I’m afraid that’s not entirely correct. The investigation of ETH (report by expert panel) found very clear evidence of scientific misconduct and repeatedly uses the term “scientific misconduct.” It was the Executive Board of ETH, however, who concluded that Voinnet’s actions did not fulfill the criteria of the school to qualify as misconduct.

      1. The comment done by “observer” very precisely reflects the positions of the “ETH Commission of Inquiry” and “The Executive Board of ETH Zurich”. Those concerned with the OV case MUST read the report of the Commission, completed on June 17, AND the press release published on July 10 by the Executive Board:

        From the report, p. 3:
        “All levels of malpractice, except category 4, constitute cases of intentional misrepresentation of data and hence are misconduct, although their gravity and hence the consequences for the scientific enterprise decrease from category 1 to 3.”
        From the report, p. 17:
        “Several cases were classified as category 2 […]. The majority of problematic papers contained clearly identified cases of misconduct that fell into category 3 […]”.
        From the report, p. 21:
        “It appears essential to the commission that, in order to avoid future misconduct driven by an excessive rush to publish, the OV laboratory is reduced to a manageable size on a single site, at ETHZ.”
        And finally, on p. 22:
        “It was not in the commission’s mandate to propose disciplinary procedures.”

        From the press release:
        “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.”

        Draw your own conclusions.
        Mine is that the conclusion released by the Executive Board blatantly contradicts the findings of the Commission of Inquiry, however, the Executive Board has the final say.

  2. Scientists that manipulate images or experiments are akin to athletes that use illegal substances. Both are usually talented and boost their productivity to gain an unfair advantage. In both cases the question is not whether or not they came in first (favourite science fraudster’s quote: my conclusions remain valid). The question is how we do justice to those that were betrayed. In other words, is it payback time now? We have come to demand that sporting “heroes” such as L. Armstrong are stripped of titles and revenues, but dopers in science usually retain their prizes, positions and the often millions in grant income. While the scientific community is slowly awakening to the magnitude of the problem, the appropriate punishment for science dopers is still far off. As ever so often hope rests largely on the US including its legal system to now tackle this most important aspect.

  3. There are two issues here:
    1) With many scientists in the world, it would be possible that one scientist is unlucky and draws so many retractions and corrections. However, the OV lab would do well to rethink its procedures and culture.
    2) How to look at 500+ citations of a compromised article? This kind of issue has surely come up earlier. Ask the database owners (Scopus, ISI, Google Scholar, Researchgate, MS academic etc) to remove these references? It would be an interesting move.

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