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Rules for identifying and punishing ethical lapses

Daniel BuenoThe Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), the oldest and largest in Mexico, has begun to debate a set of rules to identify and punish ethical lapses by its professors and researchers. Directors of the university are in charge of this task, which comes as a response to a complicated situation involving a husband and wife team of researchers from UNAM, who manipulated photos that appeared in 11 scientific articles but whose punishment was ultimately suspended because of irregularities in the investigation. Microbiologists Mario Soberón and Alejandra Bravo, from UNAM’s Institute of Biotechnology (IBt), were accused of having modified, in 2012, pictures of tests in articles about the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxins used as an agricultural pesticide. They admitted guilt “but argued that the changes had only cosmetic effects, made to improve the understanding of the images,” former IBt director Carlos Arias told the ScienceInsider blog, associated with the journal Science. An outside investigating committee formed to look into the case concluded that in at least two articles, the details erased from the images constituted “inappropriate and reprehensible” manipulation. But the panel of experts also concluded that the modifications did not compromise the conclusions of the articles and so there was no need to retract them. The penalty imposed on the researchers was severe. Soberón had to resign his position as chief of the Molecular Microbiology Department and his wife was demoted from “academic leader” to “associate researcher.”

The scientific community was divided with respect to the punishment. The case, closely followed by the Mexican press, was pointed out as a landmark in the punishment of unethical behavior in the scientific environment, but influential researchers came to the couple’s defense. Juan Ramón de la Fuente, who was a dean at UNAM between 1999 and 2007, believed that the two researchers were “victims of exaggerated suspicion” and the target of “envy” by colleagues.

In October 2013, UNAM ombudsman Jorge Carmona decided to suspend the punishment because he thought it was too severe, given the offense committed, and because he found irregularities in the pursuit of the case. One of the couple’s accusers had taken part in the initial phase of the investigation, which was considered to be improper. According to Carmona, the two did not have sufficient opportunity during the inquiry to defend themselves and suffered damage to their reputations because of selective leaking of information about the inquiry. The need to establish rules for such situation became urgent, says Agustín López Munguía, academic secretary of IBt when the accusation was made. “The university has not defined any procedures for handling this kind of problem,” he says.