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Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

University disciplines researchers who study toxins used in GMO crops; at least seven corrections to follow

with 21 comments

Two biotechnology researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico have been disciplined for manipulating images in 11 papers.

La Jornada, one of Mexico City’s largest newspapers, reports that Alejandra Bravo and Mario Soberon, a wife and husband team who study the Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) bacteria toxins used in GMO crops to fight pests,were found guilty of “manipulaciones inapropiadas y categóricamente reprobables” — which translates roughly, according to Google Translate, as “inappropriate and categorically reprehensible manipulation.”

Bravo — who won a 2010 L’Oreal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science for her work on BT — has resigned as chair of UNAM’s Committee on Bioethics, while Soberón gave up the chairmanship of the department of molecular microbiology, according to the newspaper.

However, the manipulation did not rise to the level of fraud, Carlos Arumburo, head of the Technical Board of Scientific Coordination, which investigated the case, told La Jornada.

The couple studies the mechanism of action of BT. Questions about their work arose after a Canadian team of scientists published a critical review in September. [Note, 10:15 p.m. Eastern, 11/23/12: La Jornada reported this, but as some of our commenters have pointed out, it seems unlikely to have been what prompted the investigation. Another commenter says that other UNAM researchers brought the issues to the university's attention.]

Soberón tells Retraction Watch that there have been no requests for retraction, but that so far, seven journals have so agreed to publish corrected figures. He said that UNAM is still reviewing the case.

One of Bravo and Soberón’s papers has been cited more than 200 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowlege, and one in Science was cited almost 100 times. They have at least one patent related to their work.

Update, 11:15 a.m. Eastern, 11/25/12: We’ve obtained the text of the committee’s memo on the subject. Below is the original in Spanish, followed by an English version courtesy Google Translate.

A la Comunidad Académica:

Los miembros del Consejo Interno,  en seguimiento  al comunicado que dirigió el Dr. Arias el pasado 7 de septiembre referente al caso de la investigación realizada sobre  imágenes publicadas por el grupo de los Drs. Alejandra Bravo y Mario Soberón hacen de su conocimiento lo siguiente:

* Que se integró una Comisión Externa para emitir una opinión sobre la trascendencia de las manipulaciones identificadas en 11 artículos. La Comisión estuvo integrada por los Drs. Rubén Lisker Yourkowitzky, Director de Investigación del Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Médicas y Nutrición, la Dra. Rosario A. Muñoz Clares, Profesora de TC de la Facultad de Química de la UNAM, y el Dr. Jean Philippe Vielle Calzada, Investigador del LANGEBIO, IPN, bajo la presidencia de este último.

* Que a pesar de que la Comisión Externa consideró estas manipulaciones como desafortunadas, poco éticas, y poco respetuosas del esfuerzo experimental de los investigadores que generan los resultados originales,  concluyó que el impacto científico de las manipulaciones en las figuras era menor, ya que en ninguno de los casos las modificaciones afectaron las evidencias experimentales que sustentan los hallazgos medulares de las 11 publicaciones. Sin embargo, en el caso específico de dos de los artículos analizados, la Comisión consideró que existen evidencias claras y contundentes de manipulaciones inapropiadas y categóricamente reprobables.

* Con base en lo anterior, si bien la Comisión no recomendó retractar ninguno de los dos artículos mencionados, si concluyó que la gravedad de las faltas ameritaba una sanción. La Comisión señaló además que la manipulación de figuras, plenamente documentada y aceptada en este caso, es una práctica injustificada y reprobable que atenta contra los valores de excelencia académica y científica de las instituciones de investigación de nuestro país, y promueve una imagen poco profesional y poco ética de la investigación científica que se realiza en México.

* Por lo antes expuesto, y considerando que 10 de los 11 artículos, fueron publicados bajo la responsabilidad de la Dra. A. Bravo, quien reconoció además la autoría de tales cambios, el Consejo Interno acordó aplicar las siguientes medidas:

1) De acuerdo con lo estipulado en el artículo 12 del Reglamento Interno del Instituto, solicitar la renuncia del Dr. Mario Soberón al cargo que ocupa como Jefe del Departamento de Microbiología Molecular. Igualmente, solicitar la renuncia de la Dra. Alejandra Bravo a la presidencia de la Comisión de Bioética del Instituto.

2) De acuerdo con lo estipulado en el artículo 14 del Reglamento Interno del Instituto, retirar el nombramiento de Líder Académico a la Dra. Alejandra Bravo con todos los privilegios asociados a dicho nombramiento. La Dra. Bravo quedará adscrita al Departamento de Microbiología Molecular en el carácter de Investigadora Adjunta al Departamento. Con el fin de que la Dra. Bravo cumpla con los compromisos académicos que tiene establecidos, contará durante ese tiempo con el apoyo de una plaza académica, la cual quedará asociada al Departamento. Al término de tres años, la Dra. Bravo podrá solicitar al Consejo Interno del Instituto, vía el Departamento de Microbiología Molecular, la restitución de su nombramiento como Líder Académico. De no haber surgido ninguna falta a la ética científica durante este período, el Consejo Interno tomará la decisión de restituirla con base en la opinión del Departamento, el análisis de las actividades científicas y docentes realizadas por la Dra. Bravo durante el periodo,  así como en el seguimiento de las sanciones impuestas. El espacio que ocupa actualmente como Líder Académico quedará a resguardo de la Dirección del Instituto.

3) Durante un periodo de tres años los Drs. Bravo y Soberón no podrán admitir nuevos estudiantes. Los alumnos inscritos actualmente al posgrado bajo su tutoría permanecerán bajo su dirección hasta la obtención del grado.

4) Comunicar  las conclusiones de esta investigación a la Coordinación de la Investigación Científica, con el fin de que sea el Consejo Técnico la autoridad que decida si es necesario informar a otras instancias fuera de la UNAM.

5)  Comunicar las conclusiones de esta investigación al Subcomité Académico y al Coordinador del programa de Maestría y Doctorado en Ciencias Bioquímicas, al Coordinador de Estudios de Posgrado, así como al Coordinador de la Licenciatura en Ciencias Genómicas, dado que estas medidas se extienden a otros  programas docentes.

Los miembros del Consejo Interno lamentamos profundamente tener que haber tomado las medidas mencionadas, sin precedente en nuestra comunidad, pero lo hacemos conscientes de la importancia de dejar claro ante la misma que este tipo de conductas son inaceptables en todo científico, máxime en aquellos que hemos elegido como líderes académicos. Lo hacemos también estableciendo bases razonables que les permitan mantener su actividad científica y recuperar la confianza de la comunidad académica del Instituto.

El Consejo Interno

English translation:

The academic community:

Internal Council members, following the statement that Dr. Arias led the Sept. 7 regarding the case of research on the images released by the group Drs Mario Soberon Alejandra Bravo and knowledge make it following:

* They joined an external commission to issue an opinion on the significance of the manipulations identified in 11 articles. The Commission was composed by Dr. Rubén Lisker Yourkowitzky, Director of Research of the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition, Dr. Rosario A. Muñoz Clares, TC Professor of Faculty of Chemistry, UNAM, and Dr. Jean Philippe Vielle Calzada, Researcher LANGEBIO, IPN, under the chairmanship of the latter.

* That although the Foreign Commission considered these manipulations as unfortunate, unethical, and disrespectful
experimental effort of researchers who generate original results, concluded that the scientific impact of
Figures manipulations was lower, since none of the cases the changes affected the experimental evidence
support the findings of the 11 core publications. However, in the specific case of two of the articles analyzed, the Commission found that there are clear and compelling evidence inappropriate and categorically reprehensible manipulations.

* Based on the above, although the Commission did not recommend retract neither aforementioned, if concluded that gravity of offenses warranted a penalty. The Commission further noted that the manipulation of figures, fully documented and accepted in this case is unjustified and reprehensible practice which violates the values ​​of academic excellence and scientific institutions research of our country, and promotes an unprofessional image and unethical scientific research carried out in Mexico.

* Due to the above, and considering that 10 of the 11 items, were published under the responsibility of Dr. A. Bravo, who further acknowledged authorship of such changes, the Internal Council agreed to implement the following measures:

1) In accordance with the provisions of Article 12 of Regulation Domestic Institute, request the resignation of Dr. Mario Soberon to position held Head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology. Also to request the resignation of Dr. Alejandra Bravo to the Chair of the Bioethics Committee of the Institute.

2) According to the provisions of Article 14 of Regulation Institute of Internal withdraw the nomination of the Academic Leader Dr. Alejandra Bravo to all the privileges associated with that appointment. Dr. Bravo will be attached to the Department of Molecular Microbiology in the character of the Research Associate Department. To that meets Dr. Bravo academic commitments that have established, will in that time with the support of an academic place, which will be associated the Department. After three years, Dr. Bravo may ask the Inner Council of the Institute, with the U.S. Department of Molecular Microbiology, restitution to his appointment as Leader Academic. If it had not arisen any unethical scientific during this period, the Council will decide to Internal restore it based on the Department’s view, the analysis of scientific and educational activities conducted by Dr. Bravo during the period, as well as in monitoring sanctions imposed. The space currently occupied as Academic Leader be protected from the Institute address.

3) For a period of three years Drs Bravo and Soberon may not admit new students. Students currently enrolled at remain under their graduate tutoring under his direction until the obtaining the degree.

4) Communicate the findings of this research to the Coordination Scientific Research, to be the Council
Technical authority must decide whether to inform other instances outside the UNAM.

5) Communicate the findings of this research to the Subcommittee Academic and Program Coordinator Master and Doctor Biochemical Sciences, Coordinator of Graduate Studies and Coordinator of the Bachelor in Genomic Sciences since These measures extend to other educational institutions.

Internal Council members deeply regret having to have taken the above measures, unprecedented in our
community, but we do understand the importance of leaving clear to it that these behaviors are unacceptable in every scientist, especially those who have chosen as leaders academics. We do also establishing reasonable grounds that they will maintain its scientific and restore confidence Institute’s academic community.

The Inner Council

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Written by ivanoransky

November 23, 2012 at 12:22 pm

21 Responses

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  1. Rumours about these two have been circulating for months among the Mexican scientists. Its big scandal, they are very famous Mexican researchers. Soberón is son of an ex-rector of the national university, he is from a powerful family. Not many believe that this investigation was honest by the national university. 11 papers at least (many more rumoured to be changed) and they didn’t even lose their jobs! I haven’t seen the figures, but they say it is really bad what they did. Given their profile in the transgenic Bt field, this issue will not go away for a while.

    Topolino

    November 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    • Rumors are useless in science. Stop spreading them.

      Angel

      November 27, 2012 at 1:07 pm

      • Obviously you haven’t heard about the science of “rumor spreading”, have you? In science, as in may other disciplines, rumors are very important, for they transmit a lot of information, and very often, true information. Yes, like it or not, rumors spread a lot of tru information. Granted, rumors, like love or passion, are not publishable in scientific journals. But that does not mean we have to “stop spreading them”.

        Roberto

        December 20, 2012 at 4:22 pm

  2. I do not see the relationship between the “critical review” by the Canadian scientists and the work questioned. I had a perfunctory look at the paper and, yes, they are very critical of the hypothesis and supporting data of the Mexican scientists on the mechanism of action of the Bacillus toxin on the insect gut. However, unless I missed it, there is no suggestion of fraud, data manipulation or similar. Obviously the committe investigating must have been after something else given the corrections being made to published papers and the strongly worded reprimand. Not a very clear case so far. No retraction yet, so ….?! A case for a sleuth like our ScienceFraud blogger?

    Toby

    November 23, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    • agreed!

      Hibby

      November 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm

    • You’re absolutely right. I read the entire review and from that is not obvious how the UNAM decided to start an investigation. I think that the news is quite alarming, but I don’t think that bad journalism helps at all. La Jornada two notes are rather incomplete and sensationalist. They don’t even cite right the journal of the Canadian review. It would be more helpful for the entire scientific community to know what really prompted the investigation and how the conclusions about whether is was malpractice or not were taken.

      Monica

      November 23, 2012 at 9:17 pm

      • Thanks — we’ve updated the post to reflect the comments here.

        ivanoransky

        November 23, 2012 at 10:18 pm

      • Si quieres la carta original del CTIC te la mando… anda circulando desde hace meses por todos lados.

        n

        November 25, 2012 at 10:40 am

    • It would not have been prudent for the Canadians to include potentially libelous statements in their “revue”. While it is normal to be critical of other people’s hypotheses, it is not customary to be critical of data. Unless, the data is fraudulent. I wonder if the papers in question contained any Westerns. It would explain a lot.

      chirality

      November 24, 2012 at 5:42 am

    • completely agree

    • yes, completely agree

  3. It’s true that the Review paper doesn’t mention manipulation or any other dubious practice. The internal UNAM university investigation was prompted by an initial report made by some of the University’s own researchers. The Instituto de Biotecnologia and UNAM should receive credit for having instigated this investigation and for having brought this matter to light.

    BoDuke

    November 23, 2012 at 4:08 pm

  4. Probably they pissed off enough people.

    Jennifer Lynch

    November 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm

  5. I speak Spanish, here’s my translation in case it helps:

    To the academic community:

    Members of the Internal Council, following the statement from Dr Arias on the 7th Sept, which refers to the investigation of images published by the group of Drs Alejandra Bravo and Mario Soberón, would like to make known the following:

    * That an External Commission was formed to establish an opinion on image manipuliation identified in 11 articles. The Commission consisted of Drs Rubén Lisker Yourkowitzky (Director of Research of the National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition), Dr Rosario A Muñoz Clares (Professor of TC of the Faculty of Chemistry, UNAM), and Dr Jean Philippe Vielle Calzada (Researcher from LANGEBIO, IPN), under the chairmanship of the latter.

    * Despite the External Commission considering the manipulations as unfortunate, lacking in ethics, and showing little respect for the experimental efforts of the original investigators, the Commission concludes that the scientific impact of the figure manipulations were minor, since in none of the cases do the manipulations affect the experimental evidence that support the key findings of the 11 publications. However, in the specific case of two of the analyzed articles, the Commission considers that there is very clear evidence of inappropriate and reprehensible manipulations.

    * Based on the above, while the Commission does not recommend retraction of either of the two articles mentioned, it does conclude that the seriousness of these occurrences merits a sanction. The Commission also finds that the figure manipulations, clearly documented and accepted in this case, are an unjustifiable, reprehensible practice that goes against the values of academic and scientific excellence of the research institutes of our country, and promulgates a poor professional and ethical image of scientific research conducted in Mexico.

    * Due to the above, and considering that 10 of the 11 articles were published under the responsibility of Dr A Bravo, who is recognized as the originator of these manipulations, the Internal Commission agrees to apply the following measures:

    1. In agreement with the stipulations of Article 12 of the Institutional Code of Conduct, asks for the resignation of Dr Mario Soberón of the position he holds as Head of Department of Molecular Microbiology. In the same manner, asks for the resignation of Dr Alejandra Bravo as chair of the Institutional Bioethics Committee.

    2. In agreement with the stipulations of Article 14 of the Institutional Code of Conduct, retracts the title of Academic Leader from Dr Alejandra Bravo and all the privileges associated with said title. Dr Bravo will remain in the Department of Molecular Microbiology in the role of Adjunct Researcher. As long as Dr Bravo carries out her academic responsibilities, she can count on the support of an academic position associated with the Department during this time. At the end of three years, Dr Bravo can request from the Internal Council, via the Department of Molecular Microbiology, the reinstatement of her title as Academic Leader. So long as there are no lapses of ethical scientific conduct during this period, the Internal Council will make the decision to reinstate her based on the opinion of the Department, the scientific and institutional activities completed by Dr Bravo during this period, as well as compliance with the imposed sanctions. The space that she occupies currently as Academic Leader will be placed under the auspices of the Institute.

    3. During a period of three years Drs Bravo and Soberón cannot admit new students. The students currently enrolled at postgraduate level under their supervision will remain under their supervision until their graduation.

    4. The Council wishes to communicate the conclusions of this investigation to the Coordinator of Scientific Investigation, this being the relevant authority who decides whether it is necessary to inform other institutions outside of UNAM.

    5. The Council wishes to communicate the conclusions of this investigation to the Academic Subcommittee and Dean of the Masters and PhD Programme in Biochemical Sciences, the Coordinator of Postgraduate Students, as well as the Coordinator of the degree of Genetic Sciences, since the above measures will affect other academic programmes.

    The members of the Internal Council profoundly regret having to take the measures mentioned above, which are without precedent in our community, but we do so aware of the importance of making clear to the community that this type of conduct is unacceptable in all science, especially in those that we have elected as academic leaders. We do so as well to establish reasonable grounds which can permit that Drs Bravo and Soberón maintain their scientific activity and regain the trust of the academic community of the Institute.

    The Internal Council.

    Booker

    November 25, 2012 at 6:20 pm

  6. I think it would be fair to acknowledge that Bravo and Soberón apparently cooperated with the external commission, and gave suitable details regarding the papers under investigation. From what I can read between the lines of the committee’s memo, and from comments quoted in the three reports published by “La Jornada” (November 20, 22 and 23), it seems that these authors “just” enhanced the contrast of their blots in order to make the claimed results more apparent. Some dirty lanes were also wiped, because a dirty lane is not consistent with clean conclusions reported in a high impact journal. But, by Jove!!! Nobody asks for clean and nice WB/SDS-PAGE !!!
    The memo issued by UNAM doesn’t mention the offending publications, but I assume that representative examples could be the following:

    JBC, 284, 32750 (2009) [10.1074/jbc.M109.024968]. What happened in the 100 kDa region in Fig. 1(A) ?
    FEBS Lett. 579, 3508 (2005) [10.1016/j.febslet.2005.05.032]. Figure 2.
    Biochemistry, 42, 10482 (2003) [10.1021/bi034440p]. Almost all figures.
    And so on…

    By the way, not only modified figures, but also duplications boost some papers. Compare:
    Biochem. J. 424, 191 (2009) [10.1042/BJ20090730] Fig. 1(A).
    Biochemistry, 48, 8899 (2009) [10.1021/bi900979b] Fig. 3(B).
    Identical data for two papers received in their final versions by different editorials the same day (Aug. 18, 2009). I would expect both papers to be at least cross-referenced (they aren’t). Moreover, because a flip was applied to one figure, dilutions 1/1000 and 1/100 for anti-NHE3 antibody experiments are misplaced in one paper, although it is impossible to know in which one. By chance, optical densities of the band of interest at 36 kDa are identical at both dilutions.

    Sylvain Bernès

    November 26, 2012 at 11:19 pm

  7. I think like the people who comment trying to justify Soberon´s family and saying they are under a witch hunt, 1) or haven’t seen the figures, in where manipulation is extremely obvious and clarifying about that some results never exist and that those researchers just invented, or 2) they are working for this family, which in Mexico, had learn how to do of science a job opportunity (like selling services to their own’s family company´s) and from the National Council of Science and Technology their bank… In personal I feel like the punishment its not enough and it reflects the corruption and decadence that is going on in mexican science for the last years… thanks!

    Sorak

    December 16, 2012 at 7:37 pm

  8. Of the seven announced corrections I only saw one “Erratum” published: J Membrane Biol 245(12):859.

    The text reads:
    “Erratum to: J Membrane Biol (2006) 212:61–68 DOI 10.1007/s00232-006-0003-8
    Recently in a review of our papers we found that Panels A and B of Fig. 5 were edited with Photoshop. The published figures did not made clear that they were merged figures, since some lanes of these figures came from different gels. New Fig. 5 constructed with the original gels are given below. This should be considered as definitive by the reader.”

    The Erratum was assigned the PMID 23149499
    http://pubget.com/paper/23149499/Erratum_to__Permeability_Changes_of_Manduca_sexta_Midgut_Brush_Border_Membranes_Induced_by_Oligomeric_Structures_of_Different_Cry_Toxins

    Interestingly, it no longer appears in Pubmed:
    “Error occurred: The following PMID is not available: 23149499″

    Hmm.

    Irma Aguilar

    February 16, 2013 at 11:30 pm

    • For the record, one of the “image manipulations” corresponds to Fig 1 in “Comparative Proteomic Analysis of Aedes aegypti Larval Midgut after Intoxication with Cry11Aa Toxin from Bacillus thuringiensis” [PLoS One. 2012; 7(5): e37034] in which each of the two panels is supposed to depict a different sample (untreated and toxin-treated larvae) run in an independent 2D acrylamide gel.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3353955/figure/pone-0037034-g001/

      It is pretty obvious that what’s shown instead is in fact *the SAME 2D gel, but captured at different levels of contrast*, in order to change the size of the spots.
      The story of the whole paper lies on these “differences of expression”.

      Susie

      February 17, 2013 at 12:45 am

  9. Cómo es posible que pasen estás cosas, si a este nivel estamos así como estaremos en otros niveles.
    Yo tengo una pregunta. Una persona que estudia en la UNAM puede publicar una tesis y graduarse de docorado copiando los resultados de 3 de sus estudiantes y no citarlos enla bibliohgráfía??’ Acaso por el hecho de ser tutor tiene ese derecho, de copiar????
    Se le puede quitar el grado por este plagio????

    Guadalupe Sandoval

    February 18, 2013 at 10:49 am

    • Hola Guadalupe.
      A tus 3 preguntas, podría contestar lo siguiente:
      1- Si, definitivamente. Si los sinodales de la Tesis de Doctorado no se dan cuenta del plagio o se hacen la vista gorda, lo más probable es que nadie se dará cuenta, salvo, tal vez, los alumnos plagiados.
      2- No.
      3- Si, los reglamentos de la UNAM seguramente tienen contemplado el caso, pero que yo sepa, no ha ocurrido nunca, por lo menos recientemente.

      Sylvain Bernès

      February 18, 2013 at 11:29 am

  10. Does anyone have access to a list of the 11 studies for which manipulations were observed?

    madeleinelove

    February 24, 2014 at 6:08 pm


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