Beleaguered plant scientist with 22 corrections avoids 3 more

CellCell will not be issuing corrections for three papers co-authored by prominent plant biologist Olivier Voinnet, after readers on PubPeer raised questions about some of the images. 

The news may be a welcome relief for Voinnet, based at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, who has recently issued 22 corrections and seven retractions. Ongoing questions about his work have also earned him a three-year funding ban, and caused the European Molecular Biology Organization to revoke an award.

On July 28, Cell published editorial notes for all three papers, which have been collectively cited more than 1000 times (also reported by Leonid Schneider). The notes say that the journal will take “no further action,” noting that the authors of the papers informed Cell of the problems with figures, which do not appear to compromise the papers’ overall validity.  

Here’s the first editorial notefor a 1998 paper:

We the editors of Cell were contacted by the corresponding author, Dr. David Baulcombe, and the first author, Dr. Olivier Voinnet. They informed us that, in Figure 6C, lanes 6 and 7 were intended to show two different negative controls, but one of the lanes was erroneously duplicated. The authors were not able to locate the original data and could not determine how the error arose.

Without access to the original data, a correction of this figure panel is not possible. Our evaluation of the other figures of the paper did not reveal any additional irregularities. Given the age of the paper and that the duplicated lane does not compromise the conclusions of the paper, based on the information available to us at this time, we will take no further action.

The paper, “Systemic Spread of Sequence-Specific Transgene RNA Degradation in Plants Is Initiated by Localized Introduction of Ectopic Promoterless DNA,” has been cited 479 times, according to Thomson Reuters Web of Science.

The paper was the subject of a thread on PubPeer that began in September 2014. One commenter who identified himself as Baulcombe said:

I first became aware of the problem with this paper just before Christmas when I received an anonymous email. Since then I have been investigating the problem and have now notified the editor. I recognize that I should have detected the error before the article was submitted and I apologise for the error.

Next, here’s the editorial note for a paper published in 2000, “A Viral Movement Protein Prevents Spread of the Gene Silencing Signal in Nicotiana benthamiana, which has been cited 433 times:

We, the editors of Cell, were contacted by the corresponding author, David Baulcombe, who informed us that this paper contains an unacknowledged image duplication. The mock control (Mock:M) lane shown in the northern blot experiment in Figure 3D is the same as the mock control lane in Figure 5D. Dr. Baulcombe informed us that these two experiments were carried out at the same time, run on a single gel, and exposed on the same autoradiograph and that they shared a negative (mock) control run in a single lane. Therefore, Figures 3D and 5D present the relevant lanes of each experiment plus the shared mock control. Dr. Baulcombe provided us with a copy of the original autoradiograph for these experiments. We have evaluated the data and confirmed his explanation for this duplication.

According to our current policy (although the paper was published before this stated policy was established), reuse of the negative control should have been mentioned in the figure legend. However, as this issue does not call into question the integrity of data collection and/or presentation overall, and given the age of the paper, we have decided against publishing a Correction of the figure legend. Based on the information available to us at this time, we will take no further action.

That paper was also the subject of a PubPeer thread from 2014, which also includes a response attributed to both Baulcombe and Voinnet:

We accept that the figure legends were incomplete because they did not point out that Figure 3 (panel D, right hand panel lane 4) and Figure 5 (panel D lane 1) are the same image. This duplication is not an error because the Northern experiments for these figures were carried out at the same time, exposed on the same autoradiograph and both used the same negative control sample (Mock: M). Neither of these images was spliced but the two figures show parts of the same autoradiograph, with the overlap across the negative control track (M). We have the original autoradiograph.

Finally, here’s the editorial note for a 2010 paper, “LINE-1 Activity in Facultative Heterochromatin Formation during X Chromosome Inactivation,” which has so far accumulated 145 citations:

We, the editors of Cell, were contacted by the corresponding author, Dr. Edith Heard, who informed us that this paper contains unacknowledged lane splices in Figures 2C and 4C. In the preparation of these figures, lanes that were not relevant to the experiment presented were removed; however, these splice marks were not indicated in the figure or explained in the legend. Dr. Heard provided us with scans of the original data, which were prepared in her lab. We have confirmed that, in each case, the splice removes irrelevant lanes from a single gel.

Although splicing should have been indicated in the figure and explained in the legend according to our current policies, this issue does not call into question the integrity of data collection and overall presentation; we have therefore decided against publishing a Correction. Based on the information available to us at this time, we will take no further action.

PubPeer readers began questioning this paper in 2015; in response, Heard wrote that the experiments were performed in her lab, not Voinnet’s, and one duplication was purposeful:

There is no error in Figure 2C – we purposefully showed the Rrm1 control gel twice in the lower two panels of Figure 2C in order to facilitate the reader’s assessment of each RT sample’s control Rrm1 RT PCR, below the corresponding L1-specific primer RT PCR.

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