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Good Practices

A strict approach to scientific images

BoasPraticas aDANIEL BUENOWith the dissemination of image-editing software like Photoshop, alterations in photographs and graphics published in scientific articles have become more common.  The U.S. Office of Research Integrity (ORI), which investigates suspected misconduct in research work funded by the federal government, has since the mid-2000s been making available a platform of tools capable of detecting errors in images included in papers.

To deal with the problem, some journals have even called upon experts in forensic imaging who are trained to detect indications of plagiarism and adulteration that often escape the eyes of reviewers.  Since 2002, the Journal of Cell Biology has had on its team a professional from that field.  That year, editor-in-chief Mike Rossner published an article that made recommendations for the treatment of images.  “It is very tempting to use the Photoshop tools.  Don’t do it.  That kind of manipulation can be detected,” Rossner wrote.

In 2011 the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), based in Heidelberg, Germany decided to retain Jana Christopher, a former translator and makeup artist from the English National Opera Company who specializes in forensic imaging.  “I don’t have any scientific training and I don’t understand what the images are trying to say.  I don’t need that in order to do my job.  I simply check whether the images were illegally duplicated, adulterated, rotated, or amended in some way,” she told the journal Nature.

In 2014 alone she evaluated about 2,000 images included in more than 350 manuscripts submitted to the four life sciences periodicals published by the organization: the EMBO Journal, EMBO Reports, EMBO Molecular Medicine and Molecular Systems Biology.  Twenty percent of the articles examined by Christopher turned up problems.  In many cases, the alterations were harmless: they were used to highlight a fluorescent protein, refine the focus of DNA strips, or do legitimate cropping.  But in a small fraction, equivalent to 0.2% of the articles submitted, adulterations that compromised the integrity of the research were detected, causing the manuscripts to be rejected.

Although the papers undergo peer review, it is unlikely that slip-ups in images will be identified during that review.  That does not mean, Christopher says, that the work of reviewing manuscripts for scientific journals is poorly done.  “The problems with images are less often noticed because reviewers treat the figures more as illustrations than actual representations of scientific data,” she explained.