Image manipulation as a general practice

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As managing editor, I view all manuscripts before they are assigned to an editor. Within a 4 week period, I have detected five manuscripts where photographs of either gels or plant materials were used twice or three times in the same manuscript. These manuscripts were immediately rejected.

However, we are not convinced that these are cases of deliberate misleading of the scientific community. It rather seems to us that many laboratories consider photographs as illustrations that can be manipulated, and not as original data. Thus gels are often cleaned of impurities, bands are cut out and photographs of plant material only serve to show what the authors want to demonstrate, and the material does not necessarily originate from the experiment in question.

When the editor-in-chief rejected such a manuscript, a typical response was: “I am surprised by the question and problem you pointed out in our manuscript. I checked the pictures you mentioned and I agree that they are really identical. But please be reminded that the purpose of these gel pictures was only to show the different types of banding pattern, and the gels of a few specific types were not very clear, so my PhD student repeatedly used the clearer ones. This misleading usage does not have an influence on data statistics or the final conclusion”.

Question(s) for the COPE Forum

  1. What can be done to ensure that all gels and all photographs originate from the experiment and that they should never be tampered with?
  2. How can the scientific community of some particular countries be taught correct scientific publishing standards?

The advice from the Forum was for journals to strengthen their guidance on this issue. Journals should provide clear guidelines in their instructions to authors on what is acceptable. Original data, such as gels, should not be used as illustrations, without an explanation. Line drawings, for example, can be used to illustrate a point, but if original data are being used just to illustrate a point, this should be accompanied by a very clear statement in the manuscript telling the reader this and explaining what is being demonstrated.

The Forum advised looking at the guidance published in other journals. Some journals have very good guidance on this issue and editors may wish to incorporate such guidance into their instructions to authors (with full attribution and after obtaining permission).

On a poll of the Forum, less than half of the delegates said that they screen for image manipulation. COPE has an eLearning module on image manipulation. Also, Mike Rosner has written extensively on this topic (Journal of Cell Biology 2004;166:11–15

Case Closed