Photoshopping Science? Where Was Peer Review?

Too Much to be Nothing? by Leonid Schneider.

From the post:

(March 24th, 2015) Already at an early age, Olivier Voinnet had achieved star status among plant biologists – until suspicions arose last year that more than 30 of his publications contained dubious images. Voinnet’s colleagues are shocked – and demand an explanation.

Several months ago, a small group of international plant scientists set themselves the task of combing through the relevant literature for evidence of potential data manipulation. They posted their discoveries on the post-publication peer review platform PubPeer. As one of these anonymous scientists (whose real name is known to Laborjournal/Lab Times) explained, all this detective work was accomplished simply by taking a good look at the published figures. Soon, the scientists stumbled on something unexpected: putative image manipulations in the papers of one of the most eminent scientists in the field, Sir David Baulcombe. Even more strikingly, all these suspicious publications (currently seven, including papers in Cell, PNAS and EMBO J) featured his former PhD student, Olivier Voinnet, as first or co-author.

Baulcombe’s research group at The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) in Norwich, England, has discovered nothing less than RNA interference (RNAi) in plants, the famous viral defence mechanism, which went on to revolutionise biomedical research as a whole and the technology of controlled gene silencing in particular. Olivier Voinnet himself also prominently contributed to this discovery, which certainly helped him, then only 33 years old, to land a research group leader position at the CNRS Institute for Plant Molecular Biology in Strasbourg, in his native country, France. During his time in Strasbourg, Voinnet won many prestigious prizes and awards, such as the ERC Starting Grant and the EMBO Young Investigator Award, plus the EMBO Gold Medal. Finally, at the end of 2010, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich appointed the 38-year-old EMBO Member as Professor of RNA biology. Shortly afterwards, Voinnet was awarded the well-endowed Max Rössler Prize of the ETH.

Disturbing news from the plant sciences of evidence of photo manipulation in published articles.

The post examines the charges at length and indicates what is or is not known at this juncture. Investigations are underway and reports from those investigation will appear in the future.

A step that could be taken now, since the articles in question (about 20) have been published, would be for the journals to disclose the peer reviewers who failed to catch the photo manipulation.

The premise of peer review is holding an author responsible for the content of their article so it is only fair to hold peer reviewers responsible for articles approved by their reviews.

Peer review isn’t much of a gate keeper if it is unable to discover false information or even patterns of false information prior to publication.

I haven’t been reading Lab Times on a regular basis but it looks like I need to correct that oversight.

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