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Promotion of scientific integrity at CNRS and Sorbonne University : incompetence or scientific dishonesty ? Groupe d’experts anonymes

mercredi 13 juin 2018, par Tournesol, Pr.

Une version anglaise, enrichie, du texte paru le 16 mai sur le site

"Violations of scientific integrity undermine the credibility of research work, damage the image of institutions and contribute to altering public confidence in researchers and science in general". This is stated in the guide "Practising honest and responsible research" published by the prestigious French national scientific institution CNRS in 2017 (1)*

In September 2017, allegations of fraud were published on the PubPeer site concerning manipulations of images on 21 figures published in 11 articles of which Mrs Catherine Jessus (research director at the CNRS, former director of the UMR SU-CNRS 7622, former director of the Institut de Biologie Paris Seine (IBPS) and current director of the Institut national des sciences biologique du CNRS (INSB)) is co-author.

Specifically, the PubPeer site documented that these researchers used the identical photographic image in several different unrelated figures, by simply relabeling the bands (see detailed description of these manipulations in our open letter [1]). Thus, a recycled image was used to fabricate a needed figure without performing the experiment it was claimed to represent - this represents the deliberate and fraudulent invention of scientific results. If these researchers had simply taken a magic marker and sketched out an imaginary result, there could have been no greater misconduct.

In response to these allegations, the two institutions (CNRS and Sorbonne University) quickly appointed a commission of inquiry to determine the veracity of these allegations. After a four-month investigation, the report of this commission, which the CNRS chose not to keep confidential, was made public on February 21, 2018 and can be consulted on the institution’s Web page :

Amazingly, this document exonerates the team of Catherine Jessus, claiming that such data manipulations are in accordance with accepted scientific practice.

We are a group of concerned career researchers in genetics, biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, who have fact-checked this report and analysed it point by point. We conclude that each and every one of the arguments of the Commission of Inquiry go against the common rules of good scientific practice and interpretation of results which form the basis of research integrity. Worse still, and this is the reason that we were pushed to react with our open letter [2], as it puts the weight of the most respected scientific institutions in the country behind actually encouraging this kind of manipulation of images, which is universally recognized as fabrications and falsifications of results.

Here we are indeed faced with a paradox : the very institutions put in place by the CNRS and by Sorbonne University to combat scientific fraud, have instead become themselves complicit in the commission of such fraud. Instead of exposing and imposing consequences on the disgraced researchers, thus upholding good standards in French institutions, the authorities chose to conceal, cover-up, and whitewash this fraud through a misleading and factually incorrect report aimed at confusing a non-scientific audience.

Is this factually incorrect report the result of the CNRS and the Sorbonne University simply appointing an incompetent commission ? Or could it be that the members of these ethics commissions have an interest in being lenient with their colleagues’ fraud to hide their own misconduct ?

This latter hypothesis brings to mind another recent case of fraud concerning the same type of image modification as revealed by PubPeer in the Catherine Jessus lab. This second case of fraud was exposed in the laboratory of biologist Anne Peyroche, who was at the time the president of the CNRS and thereby held the most senior scientific position in the land. Anne Peyroche was furthermore a member of COMETS, prior to her appointment in October, 2017 to the presidency of the CNRS. Following the demonstrations of fraud in her laboratory revealed by PubPeer, she was replaced as CNRS president by Antoine Petit on January 18. However, when she was COMET’s member and then CNRS’s president, one wonders whether Anne Peyroche would have helped to conceal the frauds carried out in Catherine Jessus’s laboratory, in order to minimize those carried out in her own ? Is fraud so widespread that two highest ranking scientists in the country, the two people at the head of the CNRS, are both incriminated ? Or is fraud perhaps the best way to access positions of responsibility at the CNRS ?

The CNRS and Sorbonne University cannot and should not close this case without dealing with scientific fraud as they undertook to do by signing the ethics charter for research professions (2).

Unfortunately, the latest events seem to show that they refuse to fulfil this commitment. Since our posting on May 16 of the French version of this communiqué, other researchers have agreed with our analysis that the Investigative Report published by the CNRS and Sorbonne University is scientifically without any basis (see articles in Le Monde (4) (5)). In spite of these mounting criticisms, the CNRS and Sorbonne University have nevertheless obtained the support of 503 prominently positioned French scientists in defense of a scientifically baseless inquiry report that exonerates and encourages scientific fraud. Furthermore they claim as justification that “practices surrounding the publication of scientific images have evolved considerably over the past 15 years” and that “the scientific journals where these works have been published have accepted the corrections proposed by the authors”(6). However, both these arguments are incorrect. Firstly, good or bad scientific practices are independent of the year of publication ; recopying and recycling of images is simply fraud. In fact it has become necessary over the last fifteen years for scientific publishers to write more and more detailed instructions for good scientific practice, in an attempt to reduce the increasingly frequent cases of fraud that are being encountered. Secondly, only one of the incriminated articles (#10, Daldello et al.) has been accepted for correction by the Journal of Cell Science.

With this [bleu]English version of our open letter[/bleu], we hope that our foreign colleagues will offer their expertise to assist our French research institutions to deal with scientific fraud in an honest, objective, transparent and scientific manner.

*Structure of French Scientific Establishment and organisations in place to deal with scientific integrity.

French Universities and research organizations have also published a charter of ethics, in 2014 (2), to deal appropriately with breaches of scientific integrity ranging from errors of good faith to outright fraud in French research institutions.

To comply with this charter, Pierre and Marie Curie University, which became Sorbonne University (SU) in January 2018, appointed a Scientific Integrity Officer to report breaches of scientific integrity. It also organized a series of conferences on research ethics for researchers and doctoral students (3). Since 1994, the national scientific research institution known as the CNRS, which is also a co-signatory of this charter, has set up an additional independent advisory body, the CNRS ethics committee (COMETS), consisting of a president and 12 members appointed by the CNRS board of directors, representing all the institution’s disciplines. COMETS is the author of the guide "Conducting Integral and Responsible Research" cited above (1).

Social networks have recently taken over the promotion of scientific integrity. The PubPeer site, for example, was designed as a platform for reporting post-publication fraud that has escaped the scrutiny of traditional peer-reviewed scientific journals. Allegations of fraud are followed by debates open to the entire research community. Thanks to the anonymity guaranteed by the platform, whistleblowers can report potential breaches of scientific integrity while being protected from retaliation by their superiors. In their charter, COMETS encourages institutions to take a positive view of the initiatives of scientific social networks and take into account the resources they provide, if only to follow the scientific debates that develop there, and also to react to possible alerts in areas where cheating would otherwise have gone unnoticed (1).

Thus, there exist two major organisations in France, the national COMETS committee (CNRS) and the University-based Scientific Integrity officers, to monitor and respond to ethical concerns in the conduct of scientific research.




PDF - 1.3 Mo
Rapport Fraude_en.pdf


PDF - 1.3 Mo
Rapport Fraude_en.pdf