The “Voinnet Case”: Background of a Retraction plus an Open Letter

(April 13th, 2015) Following the accusations of scientific misconduct against plant biologist Olivier Voinnet from the ETH Zürich, his first paper is about to be retracted. Furthermore, the official statements by Voinnet's current and former employers prompted an open letter (see at the end of the article).

 



As Lab Times and Laborjournal extensively reported, over the last couple of months Olivier Voinnet, professor at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences at the ETH Zürich and one of the pioneers of RNA-induced gene silencing, has become severely embattled in accusations of data manipulation. Altogether about 35 of his publications have been flagged on the publication discussion platform PubPeer for alleged image irregularities, which Voinnet and his co-authors immediately promised to investigate. In addition, the ETH as well as the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), his former employer in Strasbourg, and the University of Cambridge announced internal investigations into this matter.

After the primary wave of PubPeer revelations, the initial excitement around Voinnet soon calmed down. This was in part due to the apparent “gagging orders” issued by the ETH Zürich and the CNRS which prevented any of their scientists from talking to the media. However, James Carrington, head of the Donald Danforth Plant Center in Missouri and former collaborator of Voinnet’s, explained that the silence had nothing to do with the alleged “stonewalling” but that “there has been a large amount of activity on the part of Voinnet, the journals, and the institutions involved.  Most of the activity is not being played out with concurrent disclosures on public access forums“.

Enter “The Third Referee”

Now, with the first retraction announced – and with more retractions to come, as Lab Times was informed – the “Voinnet affair” has suddenly re-gained an, at times, almost explosive momentum. Vicki Vance, plant biology professor at the University of South Carolina, was the person who pulled the trigger when on April 1, 2015 she published her experiences as a reviewer for one of Voinnet’s papers from 2003 on PubPeer. In detail, Vance revealed that she had been asked to review the corresponding manuscript three times altogether – for Genes & Development (G&D), The EMBO Journal and The Plant Cell. After rejections by the first two journals, Voinnet’s paper was finally published in The Plant Cell (Dunoyer et al., Plant Cell 16: 1235-1250), although Vicki Vance by comparison of the different manuscript versions had obviously provided clear evidence of scientific misconduct on Olivier Voinnet’s part. Vance’s central accusation was that apparently, in the course of the manuscript revisions, Voinnet had improperly changed the descriptions of certain figures to meet the criticisms of the negative reviews.

Since Vance’s revelations, Lab Times has been in constant contact with her and has co-coordinated the subsequent public release of her original peer review report for The Plant Cell from 2003. As one of her conclusions she directly stated therein that Voinnet’s behaviour led her “to doubt the authenticity of the work and, frankly, the integrity of the authors”. She further specified that “the text of the manuscript had been revised in places to fit the experimental design recommended by the reviewer, but the data shown were the same as in the previous version. In addition, in several places the same data were shown but quantitation of these data was changed to strengthen the result”. Vance, among other things, also sharply criticised “serious problems with the execution of these experiments, including a flawed experimental design and the lack of important controls” and furthermore questioned “the identity of the plants used”.

In her PubPeer post she therefore concluded: “I don't believe anything from that lab since that time. Perhaps some of the results are true (probably many of them are), but there is no way to tell which ones are just random made-up data to support Voinnet’s view of the world”.

Vicki Vance, who once described herself as “a little old lady running a little lab in South Carolina”, has already gained a reputation for fearlessly standing up against powerful figures when, last year, she entered into a dispute with agro giant Monsanto over the safety of employing RNAi mechanisms for crop protection. James Carrington, colleague and collaborator of Voinnet and Vance in plant small-RNA research, described her to Lab Times as a scientist who “has integrity“ and who “has done important work to move our field forward“. He even conceded that her contributions to the field were perhaps “under-appreciated, compared to what they should be, by the scientific community”. 

The sanctity of peer review secrecy

As could be expected, Vance’s PubPeer revelation immediately prompted a storm of criticism on Twitter, mainly concentrating on the question whether her behaviour might constitute a break of peer review confidentiality.  Detlef Weigel, director at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, for example insisted on a “due process”, through the editorial offices and research institutions. Christian Hardtke, professor at the University of Lausanne, regarded Vance’s posting on PubPeer as “unprofessional”, suggesting that she should have rather kept her accusations confidential with the ETH and the CNRS.

Weigel is also chair of the EMBO Council (which publishes The EMBO Journal) and deputy editor of eLife. Both journals strive for a transparent peer review, “where reviews and rebuttals are published alongside with accepted manuscripts”. As more and more details of Vance’s Plant Cell experience came out, he explained to Lab Times: “The COPE [Committee on Publication Ethics, the Ed.] guidelines are a bit unclear what one should do when neither editors nor institutions pursue allegations of possible misconduct”. Nevertheless, it is Weigel’s clear opinion that “one should only go public after all other possibilities have been exhausted”. At the end of the day, however, COPE seemingly leaves the choice of procedure in such cases with the respective referee.

In this particular case, Vicki Vance as “the respective referee” was shocked that The Plant Cell and its then chief-editor, Richard Jorgensen, nevertheless decided to publish the manuscript by Olivier Voinnet and co-authors. In fact, according to Vance, Jorgensen has now admitted in a recent email to her that The Plant Cell had, at that time, “honoured Olivier’s request that the most negative reviewer not be involved“ (original quote by Jorgensen).

From today’s perspective, this appears as a truly bizarre decision since it was not academic disagreement that was at issue but rather accusations of data manipulation. In the end, the highly questionable manuscript was finally accepted for publication after – as The Plant Cell now stated in a press release from April 6, 2015 – ”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”.

At that time, however, Vicki Vance had already been excluded from the review process. Therefore, it is clear that her current criticism is not only aimed at Voinnet but also at The Plant Cell, whose editors at that time deliberately ignored her precisely presented evidence for data manipulation. On PubPeer she recalled: “I was simply in the unfortunate position of having caught him lying and I had no choice but to report it. I communicated this experience to many people at the time and over the years since”. But obviously, nobody has been willing to actively support her in all those years.

Only now, after Vance’s publication of her experiences and the original review eleven years later, The Plant Cell stated in its recent press release that the journal has accepted Voinnet’s request to retract the paper and is currently working to complete this request. It will be most interesting what the authors and The Plant Cell will specify as the exact reasons in the upcoming retraction note.

Apparently, this special The Plant Cell case has also prompted Voinnet’s current and former employers, the ETH and the CNRS, to issue official statements on their general handlings of the affair. Within two days, both institutions publicly declared that they have already installed special commissions to investigate the criticised Voinnet papers (see respective press releases here and here).

While this was not exactly news, in general, two particular statements of the releases, however, raised eyebrows throughout. Firstly, the ETH wrote, “The allegations […] concern the illustrations in these publications; the studies’ findings are not in doubt.” One day later the CNRS added “that these public allegations referred to the presentation of certain charts/diagrams but that, to its knowledge, no declaration has challenged the overall results obtained by Olivier Voinnet and his colleagues”.

“Do they already know that none of the papers is going to be retracted?” was the key question immediately raised by the statements. Not least, since everybody knows that once a paper is retracted all results described in it are not only “in doubt” but, in fact, are considered as cleared from the scientific record. And moreover, what do those statements concretely imply? That it’s not really important that the results, which go into the figures, indeed come from real experiments – as long as the conclusions remain valid? Obviously, it is this last implication which, among others, prompted Sophien Kamoun from The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich/UK to comment via Twitter that those paragraphs from the ETH and CNRS press releases are the “WORST EVER messages to young scientists”.

And Vicki Vance, who at least co-catalysed this current development, apparently also felt that again her action was needed. She immediately sat down and wrote the following open letter to both, ETH Zürich and CNRS:

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April 12, 2015

Dear scientist colleagues at ETH Zürich and CNRS:

 

I am Vicki Vance, a plant scientist and Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of South Carolina, USA.  I am writing this open letter to inform you of my experiences with regard to the current investigations of Professor Olivier Voinnet at your respective institutions.

I am making two documents available to you for your information in regard to the investigations. The first is a post that I made on April 1, 2015 at a website called “PubPeer”. I made this post after learning that many of Prof. Voinnet’s articles had come under suspicion of scientific misconduct using software that can detect such improper manipulations of data. At that time, I felt that it would have been both dishonest and a disservice to science if I did not reveal my experience from nearly twelve years prior with regard to the review of an article entitled "Probing the microRNA and small interfering RNA pathways with virus-encoded suppressors of RNA silencing" by Patrice Dunoyer, Charles-Henri Lecellier, Eneida Abreu Parizotto, Christophe Himber, and Olivier Voinnet, which was eventually published in Plant Cell, 16(5):1235-50 (2004). I should note that, although most posts on that site are anonymous, I preferred to take full responsibility for my statements and so I signed my name and gave contact information. The PubPeer post can be viewed here:

https://pubpeer.com/publications/F5BA8FE3EF8860205332839D02BBDD#fb27806

The second document I want to bring to your attention follows from the PubPeer post.  I was under pressure to prove that my comments at that site were true. However, the events happened so long ago that I no longer had the relevant reviews. But one of the journals, The Plant Cell, keeps an online archive of each person’s reviews so I was able to access that review. I tried to convince the The Plant Cell editors to post the review, but they were reluctant to do so. In the end, I posted it myself on my ResearchGate account. It can be viewed here:

http://tinyurl.com/qebftrk

 The review has been viewed 4000 times at this writing and downloaded about half that many times. Many of my colleagues have expressed shock at the reported behavior of Prof. Voinnet and disbelief that the article could actually have been published. Together, with the many PubPeer posts identifying fabrication of data presented in the figures of many of Prof. Voinnet’s articles, I think this information points to a pattern of violation of ethical scientific standards by Prof. Voinnet.

A final point is that I have read that the posts showing fabrication of data in the figures of many of Prof. Voinnet’s articles were viewed by some people as having little importance. The rationale being provided is that the results are still valid because other labs have been able to show the same results. That is NOT completely true. The practice of fabrication of data by the Voinnet lab has had serious negative impact on the field of RNA silencing. Many investigators are, in fact, not able to repeat some aspects of his reported results or have conflicting data. However, once results are published in high impact journals by a powerful and important senior investigator such as Prof. Voinnet, there is little chance to get funding to pursue conflicting data and further experimental approaches are stalled. I am a tenured scientist, approaching academic retirement and can therefore afford to bring these items to light.  However, because the consequences of Prof. Voinnet’s unethical behavior are not yet clear, many scientists more junior than I am are afraid to speak up and risk the wrath of Prof. Voinnet, should he remain the powerful force he has been in the past.

In summary, I think that Prof. Voinnet’s unethical behavior has damaged the field immensely because it is no longer clear what is true in his work and what is fabricated. In my opinion, these are serious incidences of scientific misconduct and I hope that your investigations will consider them as such.  

Sincerely,

Vicki Vance, PhD

Department of Biological Sciences
University of South Carolina
Columbia, South Carolina 29205
USA
vance@biol.sc.edu

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Leonid Schneider

(Photo: ETH Zürich)




Last Changes: 05.21.2015



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