Need for transparent and robust response when research misconduct is found
Scroll down for update on correspondence with CNRS Scientific Integrity Officer, 30th March 2023.
(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.
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
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
As recommended by Prof Petit, we contacted Dr Rémy Mosseri, Scientific Integrity Officer, with some specific questions about how research integrity is handled at CNRS. The ensuing correspondence is provided here:
13th March 2023
Dear Dr Mosseri
As you will have seen, Prof Antoine Petit replied to our previous open letter (which you were copied into) concerning the case of research misconduct at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, featured in Le Monde. We can add that since drawing attention to this case, additional serious concerns have been raised about papers of this group:
https://pubpeer.com/publications/0FA5031C555737851A865644B55B66. (comments #2 and #3)
At the suggestion of Prof Petit, we are writing now to request further information about the processes used to evaluate research integrity by CNRS.
The specific points where it would be helpful to have clarification are:
1. When problems are repeated across many papers, what are the criteria for concluding that there are “shortcomings and errors” rather than misconduct or fraud. Are specific definitions used by CNRS?
2. When an investigation concludes that a publication contains material that is fabricated, falsified or plagiarised, what criteria are used to determine a recommendation that the paper be corrected, retracted, or other?
3. Where it is concluded that a paper should be corrected or retracted, does CNRS require that the notice of retraction/correction mention the reason for this action?
4. We note that some CNRS reports into research misconduct have been published (https://mis.cnrs.fr/rapports/). What criteria are used to determine whether reports are confidential or public?
5. What training do CNRS staff and students have in research integrity, and are specific training measures implemented in cases where misconduct has been confirmed?
6. Do CNRS rules specify that a failure to report suspected research misconduct is itself misconduct?
7. What measures does CNRS take to protect whistleblowers?
(signed by Dorothy Bishop + signatories of original open letter)
15th March 2023
I will be pleased to try to answer (as best as possible, some questions are more complicate than others) your questions (I guess in english). Due to overbusiness, please forgive me if this is not done immediately. But I expect being able to answer within 2 weeks max.
I would prefer, if you can agree with that, that these answers stay informal. In other word, this would not be considered as an interview or an official document from me, from which I may find in the future selected part reproduced on the internet, without possibly (once it is in the net) the precise context in which they have been written. Would you agree on that?
There are some points in your open letters with which I may disagree, as far as CNRS is concerned. The difficulty is that you wrote an open letter to CNRS, but included general criticisms addressed apparently to the general academic IS treatment (I guess not only focused on CNRS, and even not only to France). If you are interested by my remarks, beside your own questions, I may formulate them. If interested, we could also have a more open and reactive discussion on that, by zoom.
In the meantime, please find enclosed a recent summary (in english) of the MIS activity, which may already get you interested.
Dear Dr Mosseri
Thanks for your prompt reply, and the interesting MIS summary. We do of course understand that you need time to reply.
We would prefer to have a formal response from you, in your role as integrity officer, relating to the specific questions we have raised. The reasons we are writing to you is because of concerns about how CNRS has responded to the case reported in Le Monde. These are of particular interest to the signatories because of our prior experience with institutional responses to cases of fraud. There is considerable international public interest in these matters. I hope you would be able to respond to our questions in a way that we could share publicly. I am happy to give an undertaking that I would not knowingly misrepresent anything you say, or present it out of context.
Dorothy Bishop, FRS, FMedSci, FBA
Dear Mrs Bishop,
I return to you about two points
1) You may know that (i) I must apply a strict confidentiality about the cases we treat, (ii) I cannot start (decide alone) an investigation without having a documented allegation that I can then send to the targetted persons asking for a reply. You mention in your letters 4 pubpeer new posts concerning the case discussed in a french newspaper last december. It is not clear for me whether you considered that mentioning these posts was a formal allegation or just an information. In the first case, I must tell you that just sending to a pubpeer post is not considered by us as a formal allegation. If you ask for an investigation to be opened on new elements, you are invited write and send us a detailed allegation.
2) I have a problem with your answer. I am always very interested to discuss and present the rules underlying our practice (and my impression is that you miss informations about them), and even to listen to propositions to improve them. I proposed an unformal open discussion with your group, even by zoom, in which I could expose the coherence underlying our action, and the rules themselves. Notice that we claimed from the start (2018 for the MIS) that these rules are certainly perfectible; I also had in mind to explain why I may object to some statements of your letter. You do not seem interested by all this. By the way, I find quite questionable that your questions (which are certainly interesting, and do not cover the full subject) are sent to us after you opened your public campaign, and not before (as far as I know, but I may be wrong, no prior contact has been taken by your group with CNRS). I therefore do not think that presenting the coherence of our action can rely on your future decisions.
So we will probably proceed differently. Although some of these informations are already present (in french) in our website, we will write a public document, posted on our web site, in french and english, detailing our rules and the principles guiding our action. We already had this in mind, but did not find time to dot it (in particular having informations written in english). Most of your questions (and many others) should be answered in this more global document, and you will therefore be free to use this information (by citing the whole text).
Dear Dr Mosseri Your suggestion of creating a global document in response to the questions we raised is most welcome. Thank you.
The information about MIS is also very welcome. Thank you also for explaining the situation with regard to allegations of malpractice. This does make clear the distinctive characteristics of the CNRS procedures in investigating integrity. It is understandable that a formal allegation might be needed to initiate new investigation, to avoid CNRS being overwhelmed by information or by trivial complaints, and to protect employees from malicious actors; it was rather surprising, though, to hear that you would ignore additional evidence relating to an existing case, especially when brought to you by serious integrity experts. Given that the research that is the topic of the case is clinically relevant, the malpractice has potential to be damaging to public health, as well as to the research community, to junior scientists, to whistleblowers, and not least to the reputation of CNRS. It would seem a matter of some urgency to remedy matters if a CNRS-funded research group is publishing manipulated data in multiple papers.
To avoid complications of co-ordinating numerous people, I hereby make a formal request in my own name, specifically asking you to investigate a number of new issues that have arisen since your original investigation. I am ccing to the Research Integrity officer at Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, who I assume would also need to be involved in any investigation.
Here are specific concerns regarding publications from the Laboratoire de Réactivité de Surfaces, UMR CNRS 7197 and CNRS, UMR 7244, CSPBAT, Laboratoire de Chimie, Structures et Propriétés de Biomateriaux et d'Agents Therapeutiques. The evidence of data fabrication and questionable methods is evident in the published papers and is described in the linked PubPeer comments, which I briefly summarise here:
https://pubpeer.com/publications/684C7691DAAD7FCD6B7E9BBCE5346C. Rectangles placed over images showing data, obscuring some regions.
In https://pubpeer.com/publications/99DFA69EC0222D3C40477DE9B8F8D6 Concerns expressed about inadequate corrections of earlier work. This suggests that where CNRS has proposed correction of problematic work, it has not confirmed that this is satisfactory.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/E1BEDDC613F4DE1F0DBF68F2CE6C57 An expert, Elisabeth Bik, has identified evidence of cut-and-paste of areas in photos of tumours.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/274206B58670596FD557A1E71D41FF Repeated plot in different publications.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/1076593A614D44E5019C69C642282B Another unsatisfactory correction, where inconsistencies remain in the paper
https://pubpeer.com/publications/0FA5031C555737851A865644B55B66. In addition to reuse of the same histograms across multiple papers, already noted by Raphael Levy, further comments have been added by Elisabeth Bik noting evidence of duplication of regions of plots within figures
https://pubpeer.com/publications/EA48A476C8B55E382AFD4BD56BDEC6 Yet another correction that does not satisfactorily deal with concerns.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/C9081BBA3DCD96D61FC7E1C22274FA And another correction that seems to raise more questions.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/36885F09E68EA7D5E881C625BFD998. Curves that should describe experimental data appear to be generated by formula, and have identical noise patterns.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/FA4ABD243E8518B6C72024EDB98DFA#. Curves that should describe experimental data appear to be generated by formula, and have identical noise patterns.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/DE9875DC8BA22466DB129179506638 A retracted paper appears to have been republished with only minor changes.
https://pubpeer.com/publications/5569A968DD6668A7FBCDD3A355507E Inconsistencies in reported size of nanoparticles and the figures.
Please note that this list is likely to grow, as I have been told of concerns regarding other publications that are still being compiled. It would be helpful if your committee could monitor these proactively on PubPeer, rather than relying on sleuths to bring them to your attention with a formal allegation.
I am sorry we disagree about the benefits of confidentiality vs. transparency. I appreciate that you may not wish to communicate further with me, because I do intend to make correspondence with CNRS public, as I think this is in the public interest. This is not a comfortable situation, but I hope that in the long term further scrutiny of cases of misconduct and institutional responses to them might help us reach a rapprochement about the appropriate methods to adopt in such cases.
28th March 2023
Dear Mrs Bishop,
I understand that you do not agree with our imperative rules of confidentiality, and with the form under which an allegation should be sent to us in order to possibly open an investigation. It seems that, as a general principle, emails have the same status as private correspondance, and should therefore not be tranferred to third parties without the consent of the author of the email. I politely answered to your emails, but had not in mind that these answers would be made public without my consent. Knowing that, do what your personal ethics tells you...
My personal ethics tell me to publish this correspondence, even though Dr Mosseri feels this is inappropriate. There are situations when confidentiality is important, especially early in an investigation when allegations are made and information is discussed that could affect a scientist’s reputation, before the validity of the allegations is established. However, none of the matters discussed with Dr Mosseri are of this nature. Our questions to him were general ones about CNRS procedures. We rejected his suggestion that we should discuss these informally, and asked instead for a formal response by him in his role as Scientific Integrity Officer. Insofar as evidence of scientific misconduct is mentioned in our correspondence, this relates to a case that has already been discussed in a report that is in the public domain, and all the PubPeer comments are also in the public domain.
Ethical judgements involve weighing up conflicting interests. As noted in my last email, in this case, research malpractice has the potential to be damaging to public health, as well as to the research community, to junior scientists, to whistleblowers, and not least to the reputation of CNRS. I think it is more important that we have transparency about the response when data manipulation has been demonstrated by scientists funded by CNRS, than that I take into account Dr Mosseri’s sensitivities.
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