“Not exoneration”: University reverses sanctions on husband-wife team found to have manipulated images
A complicated case involving two microbiology researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) appears to have come to some conclusion.
In November of last year, we reported 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.
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.
In the latest twist, UNAM’s ombudsman Jorge Carmona has lifted the sanctions, citing irregularities in IBt’s investigation. According to Carmona, the problems included the presence of the complainant on the internal IBt committee that first evaluated the case, a lack of adequate opportunities for Soberón and Bravo to argue their position, and a breach of confidentiality that led to rumors and press reports that Carmona says may have unduly damaged the researchers’ reputations. He also says the committee convened by his office was concerned that the punishment was too severe for image manipulation.
“It’s not exoneration,” Carmona says. Rather, his office considers the pair’s punishment “fulfilled” after 1 year.
Bravo and Soberon initially declined to respond to Science, but posted a comment a few day after Science‘s story ran. In it, they note that two journals accepted their corrections “without further actions,” and that one of those journals appointed Soberon as editor a few months later.
They also write that
b) ORI/NIH revised the case and concluded that there was no misconduct since “the questioned manipulations of images appear to lack significance as they do not alter the research results. Thus DIO has administratively closed this case without further action.” We have continued economical support by the NIH grant in collaboration with University of California Riverside.
We find that first sentence a bit puzzling, as we did a La Jornada story in April that seemed to be based on the same source as the quote Bravo and Soberon use. That story claimed that the Mexican Academy of Sciences had released a statement saying the ORI had cleared Bravo and Soberon, but we haven’t seen any correspondence from the ORI about the case.
That’s not unusual. In our experience — and by law — ORI (DIO is its Division of Investigative Oversight) can’t make any public statements about cases in which it does not find enough evidence to make a finding of misconduct. That means it only offers reports on about a dozen of the hundreds of investigations it oversees per year.
Neither does it necessarily follow that “there was no misconduct” just because the image manipulations “do not alter the research results.” Whether that pushed these allegations down the priority list, or whether the university investigation was full of holes, are other questions, but manipulation of the sort described by those corrections is manipulation. So ORI may have closed the case for any number of reasons, but “concluded that there was no misconduct” just doesn’t sound like something we’ve ever heard the ORI say. Simply put, ORI does not exonerate. If anyone has a copy of the ORI’s findings, we’d welcome the chance to review it.
Bravo and Soberon continue:
c) All committees and Journal responses received indicate that there is no evidence of misconduct.
That seems a bit vague, and in the case of journals not particularly surprising. Journals frequently say it’s not their jobs to investigate fraud allegations, and It’s the rare journal that pushes back when an author or institution says there wasn’t misconduct.
UNAM is now “creating a system for handling misconduct allegations,” according to Science — something we’re guessing the university would have been required to have as part of an assurance agreement with the ORI had they been receiving NIH funds directly.