Mexican University Lifts Sanctions in Misconduct Case

MEXICO CITY—The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) here has lifted sanctions imposed on microbiologists Mario Soberón and Alejandra Bravo after a misconduct investigation. The husband-and-wife team at the university’s Institute of Biotechnology (IBt) was found to have manipulated images in 11 published papers. IBt today released a memo outlining its view of the case and calling for UNAM—widely viewed as Mexico’s most important university—to establish guidelines for handling misconduct allegations in the future.

The allegations against Soberón and Bravo involved papers on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins, which are used in engineered crops to target insect pests. After IBt launched an internal investigation, Bravo and Soberón acknowledged having modified the images, says Carlos F. Arias, IBt’s director at the time. “They insisted that [these] were merely ‘cosmetic’ modifications,” he says—for example, erasing a line on a Western blot to make their conclusions clearer. Bravo and Soberón declined an interview request from ScienceInsider.

In the fall of 2012, an external committee convened by IBt concluded that modifications in at least two of the 11 articles were “inappropriate and categorically reprehensible,” according to a memo circulated publicly by IBt. But the panel found that the alterations 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, which IBt imposed: asking Soberón to resign as head of UNAM’s molecular microbiology department (he complied); demoting Bravo from an “academic leader” to an “associate researcher;” and forbidding the pair from accepting new graduate students for 3 years.

The Mexican press has followed the saga closely, with some opinion columnists applauding IBt’s handling of the case and others defending Soberón and Bravo against what they see as unjust allegations. In a recent op-ed for the newspaper El Universal, Juan Ramón de la Fuente, who was dean of UNAM between 1999 and 2007 and remains a powerful voice in the Mexican scientific community, held up Bravo and Soberón as “victims of excessive suspicion” by scientists who “envy” their success.

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.

Next on the agenda for UNAM is creating a system for handling misconduct allegations. “In the event that there’s a complaint, there’s no defined way to proceed. So what do we do?” says Agustín López Munguía, IBt’s academic secretary at the time the allegations against Soberón and Bravo arose. Carmona says that UNAM’s general consul is drafting new regulations outlining how the university should handle alleged ethical lapses.