Hefty correction in JBC for GMO researchers in image tampering case

jbcmarch13coverLast November we wrote about the case of Alejandra Bravo and Mario Soberón, a wife-husband team of microbiologists studying genetically modified crops, who had been disciplined by the National Autonomous University of Mexico for having manipulated images in 11 papers.

The tinkering did not rise to the level of fraud, according to the university — which perhaps helps explain why it didn’t lead to requests for retractions, according to Soberón.  Instead, he said at the time, at least seven journals would be issuing corrections. We now have what appears to be the first of these, in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

The JBC paper, “Bacillus thuringiensis Cry1Ab mutants affecting oligomer formation are non-toxic to Manduca sexta larvae,” was published in 2007 and has been cited 35 times, according to Thomson Scientific’s Web of Knowledge.

According to the correction notice, it contained three manipulated images:

The original Fig. 2 was improperly edited to remove stains from the blot. The image provided in this correction was obtained from a replicate experiment performed under the same experimental conditions. It shows the same result as the original figure but was not edited.

The original Fig. 3A was improperly edited to shift positions of the bands corresponding to the mutant L100E (lane 3) and the mutant I200D (lane 4) because the migration appeared to be anomalous relative to the positions of the other bands in the blot. The image provided in this correction was obtained from a replicate experiment performed using the same experimental conditions. In the new blot, all bands run similarly without editing.

The original Figs. 3C and 4A contained merged lanes from the same blot (Fig. 3C) or from different blots (Fig. 4A). In the corrected Figs. 3C and 4A, we added white lines to indicate that some lanes of these figures came from different gels. The new figures in this correction contain the same information as the published figures and do not change the results or their interpretation.




We’re curious to see how the six other journals handle the matter.

11 thoughts on “Hefty correction in JBC for GMO researchers in image tampering case”

  1. The Bravo case was covered on science-fraud. It’s interesting that Soberon only refers to 6 other journals, since 9 papers were flagged at SF, each one in a different journal. There are also 2 more (J. Memb. Biol and PLoS One) mentioned in the comments to the previous RW post on this topic, so that would make 11 papers in 11 different journals. Anyway, here are the ones reported on SF (most of this only visible under enhanced contrast)…

    PMID 17975031 (splicing in Figs 1 & 2) – Science paper cited >100 times (previous RW post)
    PMID 19820153 (splicing in Fig 2)
    PMID 19697959 (splicing in Fig 6C)
    PMID 16391132 (splicing in Figs 1 & 2; copy/pasting filler material in lower part of Fig 1)
    PMID 20040372 (splicing in Fig 1A)
    PMID 19559004 (splicing in Fig 1B)
    PMID 17537728 (splicing in Figs 2 & 4A) – JBC paper mentioned herein
    PMID 15963509 (splicing Fig 2)
    PMID 19732034 (Fig 1A mirror image of Fig 3 in PMID19697959)

    1. But wait, there is more
      PMID: 19808680:
      – Fig. 1 A (http://www.jbc.org/content/284/47/32750/F1.large.jpg)
      – Fig. 5 A (http://www.jbc.org/content/284/47/32750/F5.large.jpg)

      PMID: 15498772:
      – Fig. 4 B and C (http://www.jbc.org/content/279/53/55168/F4.large.jpg)

      PMID: 12050155:
      – Fig. 5 A and B (http://www.jbc.org/content/277/33/30137/F5.large.jpg)

      PMID: 18778745
      – Fig. 4 B (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0196978108003562)

      PMID: 19440244
      – Fig. 1
      – Fig. 2

      This is getting tiring and old. How many more strikes before you sit down

  2. If we go beyond the need for institutional face saving, is it really tinkering? What about the “training” received by graduate students and postdocs in this lab? One assumes they had input into the preparation of data for the paper too.
    I cannot help feeling that these corrections, though a good thing, also do the community a disservice, since it puts people who work correctly at a disadvantage, since it may takes them longer to publish. So there is a strong element of gaining unfair advantage through rule breaking, which is cheating.

  3. I can’t understand how a thing like this can be corrected… my interpretation is that the journal do accept this kind od (mis)conduct. I’m shocked, it is abysmal.

  4. “The image provided in this correction was obtained from a replicate experiment performed under the same experimental conditions.” Were those replicate experiments performed by one or two totally independent lab(s)?

    “It shows the same result as the original figure but was not edited.” Where is the credibility to make such claims? Could other totally independent labs reproduce the results that claimed in the correction including other results in this paper?

    We all know that the scientific data frauds are often difficult to be detected. Why could those improperly manipulated images in this paper pass through peer review process?

    “image fraud is actually a specific marker of a fundamentally flawed approach to science”. 
“So image fraud is a marker of deeper problems. It also completely undermines the review process.” 
“image fraud remains the clearest window we have into understanding scientific misconduct.”
 wrote in RW blog on February 9, 2013 at 2:04 am)

    The behaviour of “improperly editing” the images, which is dishonesty and cheating, has clearly demonstrated that there is no credibility of work that presented in this paper. Therefore, the paper should be retracted. Unless other totally independent labs could replicate the experiments and the data presented in this paper.

  5. Surely the authors need to explain why the correct experiment wasn’t done in the first place, or, if the samples were run in an order for a “different” paper, why they didn’t simply show that it wasn’t one gel?

    The retraction for splicing needs a mea culpa. Whether indulgences should be paid to the granting organisation, funding the work and the training of students and postdocs also needs serious discussion.

    Likewise for data re-use where the same data for a particular experiment are published multiple times. Why were data from a replicate experiment not used?

    There is the belief in some quarters that in the above cases there is sufficient wiggle room that a correction is fine.

    The problem with this belief is that where the line is drawn is not clear. For example, we have corrections appearing in cases of re-use of data to describe a different experimental conditions, as I have recently highlighted at PNAS on my blog. It is difficult to see what the authors could write in such corrections, other than to admit to misconduct of some form.

    1. JBC should retract the following two papers. May be it is waiting for a correction, just like the recent correction in PNAS (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/10/4147.extract.html). ORI knows it all.

      Sankaran et al., February 17, 2012, Vol.287, No.8,

      Marzook et al., February 17, 2012 Vol 287, No.8,

      Fig no. 7C from Marzook matches with Fig. no. 8b and 8d of Sankaran.

      Fig no. 7A from Marzook matches with Fig. no. 8c of Sankaran.

  6. “The original Fig. 3A was improperly edited to shift positions of the bands”

    I’m sorry, could you run that past me again? Since when did moving individual bands around on a gel to make the mosaic you were looking for constitute a slap-on-the-wrist offence?

    Weird. Kind of parallel universe weird, in my opinion.

  7. The saga continues. Lizzie Wade reports in Science Insider today http://t.co/cRbhIvW6iM:
    “modifications in at least two of the 11 articles were “inappropriate and categorically reprehensible,” …but did not constitute scientific fraud because they did not affect the papers’ central conclusions. The commission advised against retracting the papers. Instead, it recommended sanctions…resign as head of UNAM’s molecular microbiology department and demoting from an “academic leader” to an “associate researcher;” and forbidding the pair from accepting new graduate students for 3 years.
    In the latest twist University ombudsman has lifted the sanctions, citing irregularities in the investigation …and was concerned that the punishment was too severe for image manipulation. …his office considers the pair’s punishment “fulfilled” after 1 year.
    Former Dean of University held up Bravo and Soberón as “victims of excessive suspicion” by scientists who “envy” their success.

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