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French plant biologist cleared of misconduct in new inquiry

National research council absolves one previously sanctioned lab leader of misconduct, and holds another researcher responsible.

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Plant research in a biology laboratory

The lab was renowned for their work in RNA interference.Credit: Michael Gottschalk/Photothek/Getty

France’s national research council has ruled that one of its plant biologists committed misconduct through manipulation and data fabrication in published figures, but it cleared another researcher whom it had heavily sanctioned in 2015.

The ruling should add some clarity and closure to the long-running saga — although the cleared researcher, Olivier Voinnet, is now raising fresh questions over how the French research agency, CNRS, handled its initial investigation.

The CNRS announced its conclusions this week, following a fresh inquiry led by the agency — with the participation of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) — into five articles published by researchers at a now-defunct lab at the CNRS Institute of Plant Molecular Biology in Strasbourg, France. The lab was renowned for its work on a gene-silencing technique called RNA interference.

The CNRS and ETH Zurich each drew their own conclusions about their respective staff members, on the basis of the inquiry’s report.

ETH Zurich released its conclusions last month, saying that the inquiry found “severe” and “intentional” manipulation of research figures. But it said that Voinnet, a former leader of the Strasbourg lab and a prominent CNRS scientist who has been on secondment to ETH Zurich since 2010, “did not perform, order or scientifically endorse such manipulation”.

However, ETH Zurich concluded that, as former group leader and a co-author of four of the papers, Voinnet also bore overall management responsibility; the institution therefore extended until 2023 an existing probation it had implemented after its original 2015 investigation. Conditions of his probation include having his publication activity monitored and having a mentor assigned.

Second opinion

The CNRS has now reached a similar conclusion as ETH Zurich, with respect to Voinnet. Nature has obtained a copy of the conclusions of the meeting of the CNRS disciplinary committee, which advises CNRS management on appropriate sanctions. The meeting took place on 10 July 2018 to consider the situation concerning Voinnet. It states that after studying the CNRS–ETH Zurich report, and after interviewing the inquiry committee's president and Voinnet, it found no evidence of any serious wrongdoing by Voinnet — and subsequently voted 7 to 0 (with one abstention) in favour of no sanctions against him.

In a statement released on 3 October, the CNRS reiterated that its disciplinary committee had found no evidence that Voinnet was responsible for any unethical manipulations of figures or data in the investigated papers.

But it said that as a former head of the group, Voinnet bore some management responsibility and so gave him a reprimand that will stay on his record for three years, and which, in legal terms, is ‘category 1’ — the least serious sanction on a four-tier scale of severity used by the French civil service.

The finding contrasts with the results of the CNRS investigation in 2015, which found Voinnet guilty of research misconduct and suspended him from the organization for 2 years — a category 3 sanction. At that time, the agency found no evidence of data fabrication, but said that the intentional manipulation of figures in the papers breached accepted ethical standards for putting together figures to show selections of raw data.

The CNRS has also now said that in its joint report with ETH Zurich, they concluded that another former researcher at the laboratory, Patrice Dunoyer, committed misconduct through the figure manipulations — and in corrections to the manipulated papers — including fabrication of data. The CNRS said that Dunoyer would receive the sanction of a demotion, which is a more severe punishment than Voinnet’s, but still a relatively low, category 2 sanction.

In 2015, Dunoyer had received a 12-month exclusion from the CNRS, without pay, for scientific misconduct, with 11 of those months served as a suspended sentence.

Alain Schuhl, deputy director-general in charge of scientific affairs at the CNRS, told Nature that the latest ruling means that this suspended sentence will now kick into effect.

Official rulings

The latest version of the official bulletin of the CNRS published on 10 October confirms the charges and sanctions against Dunoyer, as well as Voinnet’s reprimand. By contrast, the first version of the bulletin, published on 9 October, made no mention of the minor sanction given to Voinnet by the CNRS. The earlier version has now been taken offline. The later version reiterates CNRS's reasoning for the sanction against Voinnet across two pages, and appeared a few hours after this news article was first published. These two pages were initially omitted because of a “computing bug”, says CNRS spokesperson Julien Guillaume.

Dunoyer, who the CNRS statement says is on a temporary assignment at the secretariat general of South Province of New Caledonia, his place of birth, has so far not replied to Nature’s requests for comment.

Loic Dusseau, the lawyer representing Dunoyer, told Nature that he had been unable to comment until now. This, he says, is because, beyond the 3 October press release, Dunoyer had not formally been informed of the details and grounds of the sanctions against him. Dusseau says that he only learnt of the details of official bulletin this morning, and that he has arranged to speak to Dunoyer.

(Dusseau told Nature on 11 October that Dunoyer has asked him to consider whether to appeal the CNRS ruling, and says that Dunoyer feels the ruling is unfair and questionable.)

The latest probe was instigated at the initiative of Voinnet, according to ETH Zurich, after he carried out his own in-depth investigation in summer 2016 into the group’s papers and raised the possibility of more-serious misconduct than had been found in 2015.

Voinnet says that the “CNRS’s reprimand is perfectly in line with the conclusions of ETH Zurich last month exonerating me”. But he takes issue with the agency’s 2015 ruling: “A reprimand is what I only should have got in 2015 — and not a two-year suspension.”

Schuhl declined to comment on the seeming reversal of responsibilities in the CNRS’s latest conclusions from those of its 2015 investigation. He said that the matter of its 2015 investigation is closed.

Case timeline

Questions about papers co-authored by Voinnet were first raised in January 2015 on the PubPeer website — a forum that allows anonymous commenting about research articles, and which has often exposed misconduct.

The CNRS announced in April 2015 that it had set up a commission of high-level experts to investigate the affair — and in July that year, it announced the sanctions against Voinnet.

When the CNRS announced sanctions at the time, its lengthy official bulletin referred only to an inquiry commissioned in early 2015, and to an 8 June 2015 meeting of CNRS’s disciplinary committee.

Nature has obtained a copy of the confidential report of this inquiry, which is dated 4 February 2015. It shows that the inquiry comprised three CNRS scientists and two from other French research organizations that it met with between 29 January and 2 February 2015, and that, during this period, the experts inspected the relevant articles and interviewed several people concerned, including Voinnet and Dunoyer.

The February 2015 report makes no mention of lab notebooks, raw data and the like — as the latest investigation has done — and runs to just four pages.

Voinnet hopes that the recent investigation will have the beneficial effect “of lifting the cloud of suspicion that has hung over many other members of the lab”, he says.

But he told Nature that he now intends to take administrative legal action against the CNRS to challenge the grounds on which the agency based his 2015 sanction.

In response, Guillaume said that the latest joint CNRS–ETH Zurich investigation has no bearing on the sanctions pronounced in 2015 — an argument that Voinnet rejects.

Nature 562, 318-319 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06966-1

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Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 12 October 2018: An earlier version of this story referred to New Caledonia as a country.

  • Update 12 October 2018: The story was updated to include a response from Loic Dusseau, the lawyer representing Dunoyer.

  • Update 12 October 2018: The story has been updated to reflect the fact that the official bulletin of the CNRS was updated on 10 October to include the reprimand against Olivier Voinnet.

Supplementary Information

  1. CNRS Bulletin