Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Open letter to CNRS

Need for transparent and robust response when research misconduct is found

(French translation available in Appendix 3 of this document)

This Open Letter is prompted by an article in Le Monde describing an investigation into alleged malpractice at a chemistry lab in CNRS-Université Sorbonne Paris Nord and the subsequent report into the case by CNRS. The signatories are individuals from different institutions who have been involved in investigations of research misconduct in different disciplines, all concerned that the same story is repeated over and over when someone identifies unambiguous evidence of data manipulation.  Quite simply, the response by institutions, publishers and funders is typically slow, opaque and inadequate, and is biased in favour of the accused, paying scant attention to the impact on those who use research, and placing whistleblowers in a difficult position.


The facts in this case are clear. More than 20 scientific articles from the lab of one principal investigator  have been shown to contain recycled and doctored graphs and electron microscopy images. That is, results from different experiments that should have distinctive results are illustrated by identical figures, with changes made to the axis legends by copying and pasting numbers on top of previous numbers.


Everyone is fallible, and no scientist should be accused of malpractice when honest errors are committed. We need also to be aware of the possibility of accusations made in bad faith by those with an axe to grind. However, there comes a point when there is a repeated pattern of errors for a prolonged period for which there is no innocent explanation. This point is surely reached here: the problematic data are well-documented in a number of PubPeer comments on the articles (see links in Appendix 1 of this document).


The response by CNRS to this case, as explained in their report (see Appendix 2 of this document), was to request correction rather than retraction of what were described as “shortcomings and errors”, to accept the scientist’s account that there was no intentionality, despite clear evidence of a remarkable amount of manipulation and reuse of figures; a disciplinary sanction of exclusion from duties was imposed for just one month. 


So what should happen when fraud is suspected?  We propose that there should be a prompt investigation, with all results transparently reported. Where there are serious errors in the scientific record, then the research articles should immediately be retracted, any research funding used for fraudulent research should be returned to the funder, and the person responsible for the fraud should not be allowed to run a research lab or supervise students. The whistleblower should be protected from repercussions.


In practice, this seldom happens. Instead, we typically see, as in this case, prolonged and secret investigations by institutions, journals and/or funders. There is a strong bias to minimize the severity of malpractice, and to recommend that published work be “corrected” rather than retracted.


One can see why this happens. First, all of those concerned are reluctant to believe that researchers are dishonest, and are more willing to assume that the concerns have been exaggerated. It is easy to dismiss whistleblowers as deluded, overzealous or jealous of another’s success. Second, there are concerns about reputational risk to an institution if accounts of fraudulent research are publicised. And third, there is a genuine risk of litigation from those who are accused of data manipulation. So in practice, research misconduct tends to be played down.


However, this failure to act effectively has serious consequences:

1.   It gives credibility to fictitious results, slowing down the progress of science by encouraging others to pursue false leads. This can be particularly damaging for junior researchers who may waste years trying to build on invented findings. And in the age of big data, where results in fields such as genetics and pharmaceuticals are harvested to contribute to databases of knowledge, erroneous data pollutes the databases on which we depend.

2.   Where the research has potential for clinical or commercial application, there can be direct damage to patients or businesses.

3.   It allows those who are prepared to cheat to compete with other scientists to gain positions of influence, and so perpetuate further misconduct, while damaging the prospects of honest scientists who obtain less striking results.

4.   It is particularly destructive when data manipulation involves the Principal Investigator of a lab. This creates challenges for honest early-career scientists based in the lab where malpractice occurs – they usually have the stark options of damaging their career prospects by whistleblowing, or leaving science. Those with integrity are thus removed from the pool of active researchers. Those who remain are those who are prepared to overlook integrity in return for career security.  CNRS has a mission to support research training: it is hard to see how this can be achieved if trainees are placed in a lab where misconduct occurs.

5.   It wastes public money from research grants.

6.   It damages public trust in science and trust between scientists.

7.   It damages the reputation of the institutions, funders, journals and publishers associated with the fraudulent work.

8.   Whistleblowers, who should be praised by their institution for doing the right thing, are often made to feel that they are somehow letting the side down by drawing attention to something unpleasant. They are placed at high risk of career damage and stress, and without adequate protection by their institution, may be at risk of litigation. Some institutions have codes of conduct where failure to report an incident that gives reasonable suspicion of research misconduct is itself regarded as misconduct, yet the motivation to adhere to that code will be low if the institution is known to brush such reports under the carpet.


The point of this letter is not to revisit the rights and wrongs of this specific case or to promote a campaign against the scientist involved. Rather, we use this case to illustrate what we see as an institutional malaise that is widespread in scientific organisations.  We write to CNRS to express our frustration at their inadequate response to this case, and to ask that they review their disciplinary processes and consider adopting a more robust, timely and transparent process that treats data manipulation with the seriousness it deserves, and serves the needs not just of their researchers, but also of other scientists, and of the public who ultimately provide the research funding.


Signed by:


Dorothy Bishop, FRS, FBA, FMedSci, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology (Emeritus), University of Oxford, UK.


Patricia Murray, Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, University of Liverpool, UK.


Elisabeth Bik, PhD, Science Integrity Consultant


Florian Naudet, Professor of Therapeutics, Université de Rennes and Institut Universitaire de France, Paris


David Vaux, AO FAA, FAHMS, Honorary Fellow WEHI, & Emeritus Professor University of Melbourne, Australia


David A. Sanders, Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University, USA.


Ben W. Mol, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Melbourne, Australia


Timothy D. Clark, PhD, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Geelong, Australia


David Robert Grimes, PhD, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland


Fredrik Jutfelt, Professor of Animal Physiology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway


Nicholas J. L. Brown, PhD, Linnaeus University, Sweden


Dominique Roche, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global FellowD, Institut de biologie, Université de Neuchâtel, Switzerland


Lex M. Bouter, Professor Emeritus of Methodology and Integrity, Amsterdam University Medical Center and Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands


Josefin Sundin, PhD, Department of Aquatic Resources, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden


Nick Wise, PhD, Engineering Department, University of Cambridge, UK


Guillaume Cabanac, Professor of Computer Science, Université Toulouse 3 – Paul Sabatier and Institut Universitaire de France


Iain Chalmers, DSc, MD, FRCPE, Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, University of Oxford.


Response from CNRS, received 28th Feb 2023. 

 French version below. Version en français plus bas. ======================================== 

Dear Colleagues, I have read the open letter you sent me by email on February 22, entitled "Need for transparent and robust response when research misconduct is found". 

I am very surprised that you did not think it necessary to contact the CNRS before publishing this open letter. You are obviously not familiar, or at least very unfamiliar, with CNRS policy and procedures regarding scientific integrity. 

The CNRS deals with these essential issues without any complacency, but tries to be fair and to ensure that the sanctions are proportional to the misconduct committed, while respecting the rules of the French civil service. 

 Your letter mixes generalities about the so-called actions of scientific institutions with paragraphs that apply, perhaps, to the CNRS. If you wish to know how scientific misconduct is handled at the CNRS, I invite you to contact our scientific integrity officer, Rémy Mosseri 

Kind regards, 

Antoine Petit ================== 

Professer Antoine Petit CNRS CEO 


Chers et chères collègues, J’ai pris connaissance de la lettre ouverte que vous m’avez adressée par courriel le 22 février dernier dont le titre est « Nécessité d'une réponse transparente et robuste en cas de découverte de manquements à l’intégrité scientifique ». 

Je suis très étonné que vous n’ayez pas jugé utile de prendre contact avec le CNRS avant de publier cette lettre ouverte. Vous ne connaissez visiblement pas, ou au minimum très mal, la politique et les procédures du CNRS en ce qui concerne l’intégrité scientifique. 

 Le CNRS traite ces questions essentielles sans aucune complaisance mais en essayant d’être justes et que les sanctions soient proportionnelles aux fautes commises, tout en respectant les règles de la fonction publique française. 

Votre lettre mélange des généralités sur les soi-disant agissement des institutions scientifiques et des paragraphes qui s’appliquent, peut-être, au CNRS. Si vous souhaitez savoir comment les méconduites scientifiques sont traitées au CNRS, je vous invite à prendre contact avec notre référent intégrité scientifique, Rémy Mosseri 

 Bien à vous, ================ 

Antoine Petit CNRS Président - Directeur général


  1. I can think of a couple of institutions in Canada that should heed a letter like this.

  2. You refer to pubpeer but this site lacks transparency and practices a censorship policy regarding comments on articles by the site manager. An investigation for manipulation of data is in progress at the editor ACS concerning this article J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2004, 126, 32, 10076–10084
    work of Mr Raphael Levy

    1. I do decide which comments to allow, as there is a great deal of spam and some comments are off-topic. It can take a day or two before I am informed of comments and can release them from moderation.

    2. Comments are moderated to deter spam and off-topic replies. I've let this through to avoid accusations of censorship, but it does read like whataboutery. It's unclear how it relates to the issues regarding CNRS's response to a case where breaches of rules of scientific integrity were confirmed by their investigation.

  3. Remarkable that only two French researchers signed. Our silence is thunderous.

    1. I don't think you can read anything into the number of signatories from different countries. I did not want a pile-on, but rather invited people who have expressed concerns about inadequate responses to cases of misconduct, aiming for a range of subject-areas and locations. I gather than some people in French institutions are nervous about "rocking the boat" but in general, there has been support on social media from French scientists.

  4. Nice to see my dear friend Antoine replying here. However, facts are those:
    1. He personally declared in an interview that the incidence of research misconduct at CNRS was "infinitesimal" (
    2. He personally was responsible for total whitewashing of CNRS institute director Laurence Drouard, and let's also recall the affairs of former CNRS chief biologist Catherine Jessus, former CNRS president Anne Peyroche, both officially innocent victims of slanderous bloggers.
    3. Antoine seriously considered deploying French secret service to find out the real identities of PubPeer commenters.

  5. Excellent answer of CNRS take it

  6. Antoine Petit, dodge this =>

  7. We wait Mr Mosseri answer to this on PubPeer ( 2 authors are CNRS ) =>