Editors unite to fight falsified images in research papers

New guidelines list three categories of image manipulation, ranging from “embellished” figures to those that have been modified for the purpose of misleading.Credit: Getty

Some of the world’s largest publishers have come together to tackle the growing problem of image manipulation in scientific papers. They’ve developed a three-level classification system that publishers can use to flag suspicious content, along with detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to deal with spoofed images.

Image integrity experts welcome the guidelines, but say they are overdue. “They won’t prevent scientific misconduct, but they do provide further scrutiny both at the submission stage and after publication,” says Elisabeth Bik, California-based research integrity consultant.

Studies suggest that up to a fifth of published life science papers contain at least one digitally altered image. Researchers can make adjustments for relatively harmless reasons – by increasing contrast or color balance to show a key point more clearly, for example. But they can also use image editing tools to create completely bogus results. A photograph of an electrophoresis gel or western blot can be modified by cropping and pasting the bands in different positions, or a microscope image can be photoshoped to remove a particular type of cell.

The Publishing Ethics Board in Eastleigh, UK, a membership organization for academic publishing, has previously produced flowcharts showing the steps editors can take if a reader or reviewer raises issues with pictures Where The data in a manuscript. But now, a task force made up of representatives from eight publishers, including Elsevier, JAMA, Wiley and Springer Nature, as well as the industry group STM, based in The Hague, Netherlands, have come together to create a set of recommendations. best practices for publishers. (NatureThe news team is editorial independent of its publisher, Springer Nature.)

Detailed guidance

The new guide, which was posted on the OSF preprint server on September 91, provides more detailed information on how to handle specific scenarios, for example if the authors do not offer a satisfactory explanation in response to questions from an editor. Editors say it should be used as part of a pre-publication screening process, or to address issues raised by published articles.

The guide lists three categories of manipulation, ranging from level one – in which certain images in the document have been altered, or “embellished” in a way that does not affect the research findings – to level three, which includes “from serious manipulation of images, with unequivocal evidence of obscuration or fabrication and an intention to mislead ”. Each level of manipulation has a list of examples and actions for editors to take.

Level one aberrations include duplicating part of an image or merging data from different experiments. If such cases arise before publication, editors should ask the authors for an explanation and source data. If the answer is satisfactory, the guide says, publishers can accept a revised figure without reporting initial suspicions to the researchers’ institutions. At level two – images that are significantly altered in a way that goes against common practice – all non-confidential correspondence relating to the issue should be included in the peer review package of an article.

Level three manipulations include selective reporting or cropping images so that they do not represent the original data, and erroneous labeling or duplicating parts of images. If they do not receive adequate explanations or source data, editors should reject the manuscript and notify the authors’ institutions. If the same data or suspect figures are subsequently published in another journal, editors should notify that journal. Level three cases that come to light after publication should result in the article being withdrawn if the authors do not provide a convincing explanation or source data.

Permit to act

Bik says the recommendations offer more specific guidance than existing guidance issued by COPE. “It is very useful that the recommendations indicate that the journals can act on their own, even if they do not agree with the conclusions of the institutions,” she says. “Too often, institutions will conclude that no fault has been found, even in cases of clear photoshoped images, perhaps due to embarrassment or conflict of interest.”

Jana Christopher, image integrity analyst at FEBS Press in Heidelberg, Germany, says the effect of the guidelines will depend on the number of journals committing to follow them.

But she warns that meeting the recommendations will take time, perseverance and dedication. “It’s notoriously difficult to get to the bottom of the issues, especially if it’s several years after publication,” she said.


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