15-year old paper pulled for image problems

A group of researchers in France has been forced to retract their 2002 article in the Journal of Virology after learning that the paper was marred by multiple image problems.

The paper, “P0 of Beet Western Yellows Virus Is a Suppressor of Posttranscriptional Gene Silencing,” came from the lab of Veronique Ziegler-Graff, a plant biologist at the University Louis Pasteur, in Strasbourg. The authors attribute some of the image problems to “genuine mounting mistakes,” and have repeated the experiments to confirm the conclusion, as have other labs. However, the researchers couldn’t find all the original data from the 2002 paper.

Although the retraction statement points the finger at the first author, Sebastien Pfeffer, the list of contributors includes Patrice Dunoyer, a frequent collaborator of Olivier Voinnet, a high-profile plant biologist whose work has come under intense scrutiny.

According to the lengthy notice:

We recently noticed that some figures contained Northern and Western blot images comprising spliced lanes and nonuniform contrast adjustments that were not indicated as such. Upon closer inspection of the published figures and the original material that was still available, we also realized that some lanes of one Western blot and one Northern blot were reused in assembling different figures. In addition, some figures presented signs of inappropriate manipulation. The details of these issues are as follows.

Page 6818: In Fig. 3B, lower panel, the 5th lane is a duplication and inversion of the 2nd lane.

Pages 6819 and 6821: The first three lanes of Fig. 4B are reused in Fig. 6B.

Pages 6820 and 6821: Some lanes of Fig. 6D are reused in Fig. 5C. In Fig. 5C, 6C, and 6D, some lanes with background are duplicated.

Page 6821: In Fig. 6C, the contrast is not evenly adjusted. Figures 6C and 6D present spliced lanes that are not indicated as such.

While some of these issues were genuine mounting mistakes and could have been corrected by making new figures with the original blots, we could not retrieve all of the original data. Since the publication of the article, we have repeated the experiments and confirmed that its conclusion, P0 protein being a suppressor of RNA silencing, remains valid. Moreover, the data have also been confirmed independently by several other laboratories. Nonetheless, given the nature and extent of some of the manipulations, we decided that the best course of action is to retract this publication. S. Pfeffer was responsible for the mounting of the problematic figures and takes full responsibility for the errors that were made. We apologize for and deeply regret the errors in this publication.

Pfeffer has three publications with Ziegler-Graff. We emailed Ziegler-Graff for comment but haven’t heard from her.

Pfeffer is now affiliated with the University of Strasbourg, where he works as a virologist. We emailed him for comment, as well.

Pfeffer, Dunoyer and Voinnet co-wrote a paper in 2002 in The Plant Journal that drew eyes on PubPeer for some of its images, which were eventually corrected:

In the article by Dunoyer et al. (2002), Figures 2, 3 and 6 contain northern or western blot images comprising spliced lanes that were not indicated in the original Figures, and in agreement with the editors, we have decided to replace these figures with updated versions in which the spliced lanes are now clearly indicated by white vertical bars. While correcting these figures, it was found that one panel of Figure 2c was also incorrect and this has been replaced with the correct panel. The corresponding figure legends have also been modified to acknowledge these changes. … These corrections were provided by the first two authors as the TPJ Editorial Office was unable to contact the original corresponding authors.

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