Two retractions as yeast researcher risks losing her PhD – Retraction Watch

Saccharomyces cerevisiae cells in DIC microscopy via Wikimedia

A team of researchers in France has lost two papers on their studies of yeast because the work was “a complete work of fiction,” in the words of one colleague.

The papers came from the lab of Jean-Luc Parrou, of the University of Toulouse, and involved work by a former PhD student of his named Marjorie Petitjean. According to Parrou, institutional investigators are now in the process of revoking her degree, but have been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. We could not find contact information for Petitjean.

One of the articles, “Yeast tolerance to various stresses relies on the trehalose-6P synthase (Tps1) protein, not on trehalose,” appeared last year in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. It has been cited 54 times, according to Clarivate Analytics’ Web of Science. The other, “A new function for the yeast Trehalose-6P Synthase (Tps1) Protein, as key pro-survival factor during growth, chronological ageing, and apoptotic stress,” was published in Mechanisms of Ageing and Development in 2017. It has been cited 11 times. 

The retraction notice from JBC reads

This article has been withdrawn by Marie-Ange Teste, Jean M. François, and Jean-Luc Parrou. Marjorie Petitjean could not be reached. The corresponding author identified major issues and brought them to the attention of the Journal. These issues span significant errors in the Materials and Methods section of the article and major flaws in cytometry data analysis to data fabrication on the part of one of the authors. Given these errors, the withdrawing authors state that the only responsible course of action would be to withdraw the article to respect scientific integrity and maintain the standards and rigor of literature from the withdrawing authors’ group as well as the Journal. The withdrawing authors sincerely apologize to the readers and editors.

The one for MAD states

This article has been retracted at the request of Marie-Ange Teste, Isabelle Léger-Silvestre, Jean M François and Jean-Luc Parrou. Marjorie Petitjean could not be reached.

The corresponding author identified major issues, brought them to the attention of the Journal.

These issues span from significant errors in the Material and Methods section of the article and major flaws in cytometry data analysis to data fabrication on the part of one of the authors.

Given these errors, the retracting authors state that the only responsible course of action would be to retract the article, to respect scientific integrity and maintain the standards and rigor of literature from the retracting authors’ group as well as the Journal.

The retracting authors sincerely apologize to the readers and editors.

Parrou told us that he first noticed serious problems with Petitjean’s data in 2016 when he was preparing a manuscript for submission to Science. At the time, his former student was working as a postdoc at a lab in Scotland:

Since that time, followed dreadful discoveries of misconducts  and erroneous data no longer reproducible.

This nightmare period therefore lasted for almost 4 years (4 years next summer), during which I also tried to get answers from Marjorie Petitjean about the reasons and motivations for such a misconduct. With no success.

Parrou said he informed research integrity officers at several bodies, including his university and national institutions. The National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA), which hosts Parrou’s lab and which awarded her PhD, launched an inquiry into Petitjean, he said:

Two nominated experts hence came to the lab last autumn and provided their own conclusion on that story. They obviously confirmed what I discovered. With these elements in hands (my report and this expertise) , the INSA decided to open a disciplinary procedure, which started last February, to formally revoke Ms. Petitjean Ph.D.

Parrou said that Petitjean declined to defend herself during the investigation or appear before the committee, which was scheduled to render its final decision in March but has postponed the ruling. 

Meanwhile, Parrou said he learned that Petitjean’s post-doctoral supervisor found evidence that she had been fabricating data in that position. 

‘A certain feeling of guilt’

For Parrou, the experience has been wrenching: 

Today, my greatest regret is not having an answer as to the motivation of this student. … But as a thesis supervisor, this will never take away a certain feeling of guilt.

Of course, this story led me going through a period of great doubts, less and less as the time was going on, and finally no doubts at all with those post-doc revelations ; therefore, time might have been saved going quicker through that nightmare, but an inadequate decision from my part towards Mrs Petitjean, with unfounded or partially wrong accusations, could have been dramatic, also for her.

It is a very difficult task to start, from personal initiative, such a complex investigation work with the very probable objective to withdraw articles, in which you invested money, energy and enthusiasm while doing the job, discussing and writing. While you planned great perspectives. But the honesty must be the rule in science, for pairs and citizens’ trust in science. I had no choice. And fortunately got the support from my colleagues and co-authors, as well as from research institutes.

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