Journals Find Fakery in Many Images Submitted to Support Research

By JEFFREY R. YOUNG, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 29, 2008


Kristin Roovers was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania with a bright career ahead of her—a trusted member of a research laboratory at the medical school studying the role of cell growth in diabetes.

But when an editor of The Journal of Clinical Investigation did a spot-check of one of her images for an article in 2005, Roovers’s research proved a little too perfect.

The image had dark bands on it, supposedly showing different proteins in different conditions. “As we looked at it, we realized the person had cut and pasted the exact same bands” over and over again, says Ushma S. Neill, the journal’s executive editor. In some cases a copied part of the image had been flipped or reversed to make it look like a new finding. “The closer we took a look, the more we were convinced that the data had been fabricated or manipulated in order to support the conclusions.”

As computer programs make images easier than ever to manipulate, editors at a growing number of scientific publications are turning into image detectives, examining figures to test their authenticity.

And the level of tampering they find is alarming. “The magnitude of the fraud is phenomenal,” says Hany Farid, a computer-science professor at Dartmouth College who has been working with journal editors to help them detect image manipulation. Doctored images are troubling because they can mislead scientists and even derail a search for the causes and cures of disease.