As some of you already know, I have been working on a side-project on scientific misconduct, together with Arturo Casadevall ( Johns Hopkins) and Ferric Fang ( University of Washington). In this project, we screened over 20,000 papers that had been published in 40 different journals for cases of inappropriate image duplication, focusing on photographic images such as Western blots, gels, microscopy/histology, and FACS plots. It took me 2 years of almost all my free time to screen the papers and make reports on the 1 in every 25 papers that showed duplicated images or parts of images.
After sending our manuscript to 3 different journals and receiving 3 rejection letters, we wanted to share our results with a wider (and hopefully more positive) audience. So earlier this week, we posted our manuscript on the preprint server bioRxiv (a very easy and free process!). We have also submitted our ms to journal #4. After all, the fouth time’s a charm, right?
Here is the abstract and link to our preprint (not peer-reviewed). You can leave comments at the bottom.
The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research Publications – Elisabeth M. Bik, Arturo Casadevall, Ferric C. Fang – Preprint on bioRxiv
Inaccurate data in scientific papers can result from honest error or intentional falsification. This study attempted to determine the percentage of published papers containing inappropriate image duplication, a specific type of inaccurate data. The images from a total of 20,621 papers in 40 scientific journals from 1995-2014 were visually screened. Overall, 3.8% of published papers contained problematic figures, with at least half exhibiting features suggestive of deliberate manipulation. The prevalence of papers with problematic images rose markedly during the past decade. Additional papers written by authors of papers with problematic images had an increased likelihood of containing problematic images as well. As this analysis focused only on one type of data, it is likely that the actual prevalence of inaccurate data in the published literature is higher. The marked variation in the frequency of problematic images among journals suggest that journal practices, such as pre-publication image screening, influence the quality of the scientific literature.
Retraction Watch coverage
So far, our manuscript has been featured by a couple of news and science sites. Cat Ferguson of Retraction Watch was the first to cover our study in an article called “One in 25 papers contains inappropriately duplicated images, screen finds“. Cat writes:
Bik’s procedure to find these kinds of duplications is disarmingly simple. She pulls up all the figures in a paper and scans them. It only takes her about a minute to check all the images in a PLoS ONE paper, a little longer for a paper with more complicated figures. In some cases, Bik adjusted the contrast on the image to better spot manipulations.
Some other news sites that covered the study:
Many Duplicates Unearthed – GenomeWeb
Brain station; monkey business; duplication dilemma – Katie Moisse -Spectrum News
Peer Review Fails, Again. I don’t know if the refusal of three (3) journals to date to publish this work or that peer reviewers of the original papers missed the duplication is the sadder news about this paper. – Patrick Durusau – Another Word For It.
In German: Schummelbilder in vier Prozent aller Veröffentlichungen – Lars Fischer- Spektrum
In Dutch: Veel geknoei met foto’s – Wetenschapsfraude – Dezelfde foto met een ander bijschrift, is dat een slordigheidje of bewuste misleiding? Het blijkt regelmatig voor te komen – Sander Voormolen – NRC
In Russian: 4% биомедицинских статей содержат некорректные иллюстрации – Scientific Russia