Questions swirl around CNRS director’s decision to step down early

Anne Peyroche

Today, a French council was set to confirm the new head of a prominent research institute, the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). But the appointee took the job a few days early, after the interim director stepped down last week — and the speculation about why she left hasn’t stopped ever since.

An official announcement from the French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation, which runs the CNRS, said Anne Peyroche would be replaced by her expected successor, computer scientist Antoine Petit. Although there have been discussions about some of Peyroche’s work on PubPeer (some of which the authors have responded to, assuaging at least one critic), the announcement provided no reason for the new timetable; a news story in Le Figaro cited health reasons.

A spokesperson for the CNRS told Retraction Watch:

Anne Peyroche was incapacitated and unable to complete her mandate, hence the appointment of Antoine Petit one week early.

Following [Petit’s] nomination, Anne Peyroche asked him to be relieved of her duties as CNRS chief research officer and informed the CNRS that the CEA had filed a procedure against her in the wake of accusations concerning some of her scientific publications. Antoine Petit accepted her resignation, which in his opinion can only be temporary. He believes that it is essential to respect the adversary system and the presumption of innocence. Antoine Petit has also formally asked the CEA to provide supporting information on this ongoing procedure.

We contacted Peyroche, but haven’t heard back.

The “procedure” filed by the CEA follows a discussion of five papers by Peyroche on PubPeer that date from 2001. Anonymous commenters posted questions about the images starting three months ago; in two cases, the authors responded. In one of those cases, Peyroche herself posted a response two months ago to provide some original data, after which one of the anonymous commenters said:

Thank you for taking the time to post the original data. This clears any doubt I may have had.

A representative for the CEA pointed us to a news story in AFP, in which the CEA explains the decision to file a procedure stemmed from the opinion of four independent experts who were appointed in November. As reported by the AFP (according to our Google translate):

The opinion of these experts, “based on the only analysis of documents and scientific data”, “does not prejudge anything,” says the CEA spokesperson. The organization has also “broadened the scope of investigations” by appointing other experts tasked with interrogating the co-authors of the studies concerned.

It’s unclear what the CEA procedure is based on, nor why it might have prompted Peyroche to step down with only days left in her tenure as interim head of the CNRS.

The head of the CNRS is a highly coveted position with political sway; given that the PubPeer comments are anonymous, it’s difficult to know if the critics are hiding their identity because they are afraid of backlash from criticizing a powerful person, or to conceal their political motivations in trying to take Peyroche down. Regardless, the FAQ section of PubPeer explains that, since comments are moderated, the motivations behind them aren’t always relevant:

We and other readers have no way of evaluating the motivations or potential conflicts of interests of anonymous commenters. However, everybody can evaluate the substance of a comment, which we feel is more informative and fundamental. If a comment is correct and useful, does it matter who made it or why? Moderation ensures that comments are factual and verifiable. Authors can respond. Readers must perform their own scientific evaluation.

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6 thoughts on “Questions swirl around CNRS director’s decision to step down early”

  1. it’s difficult to know if the critics are hiding their identity because they are afraid of backlash from criticizing a powerful person, or to conceal their political motivations in trying to take Peyroche down.

    There are of course other possibilities. Anonymity is the default setting at PubPeer; to identify oneself and sign a name to a comment requires additional effort (and the possession of an institutional email).

    1. To put it another way: The suggestion that “the critics are hiding their identity” (with the implication of deliberate concealment) begs the question. When combined with “political motivations in trying to take Peyroche down” as one of the possible motives for this supposed concealment, it has negative implications.

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