Faked images in research papers submitted to journals

The Chronicle of Higher Education (29 May 2008) has published an article by Jeffrey R. Young about image “beautification”, or to put it more bluntly, “fakery”, in papers reporting research results. The article describes the discovery of “doctored” images by editors at the Journal of Clinical Investigation, and outlines some of the processes that it and other journals have put in place to uncover the practice, complete with some case-histories. All papers accepted for publication by the Journal of Cell Biology, for example, are subjected to an image check. Dr Linda Miller, US Executive Editor of Nature, was interviewed for the Chronicle’s article:

At Nature Publishing Group, which produces some of the world’s leading science journals, image guidelines were developed in 2006, and last year the company’s research journals began checking two randomly selected papers in each issue for image tampering, says Linda J. Miller, U.S. executive editor of Nature and the Nature Publishing Group’s research journals.

So far no article has been rejected as a result of the checking, she says.

Ms. Miller and other editors say that in most cases of image tampering, scientists intend to beautify their figures rather than lie about their findings. In one case, an author notified the journal that a scientist working in his lab had gone too far in trying to make figures look clean. The journal determined that the conclusions were sound, but “they wound up having to print a huge correction, and this was quite embarrassing for the authors,” she says.

Ms. Miller wrote an editorial for Nature stressing that scientists should present their images without alterations, rather than thinking polished images will help them get published. Many images are of gels, which are ways to detect proteins or other molecules in a sample, and often they are blurry.

No matter, says Ms. Miller. “We like dirt—not all gels run perfectly,” she says. “Beautification is not necessary. If your data is solid, it shines through.”

Nature journals’ image guidelines can be found here. Also on this page are links to free-access editorials in the Nature journals about our policies and why we have them, together with an invitation to authors and other scientists to comment online.


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