Photo Manipulation in Science

Nature has a kind of interesting story about the problems with people altering the figures they submit to be published.

Apparently it’s such an issue that the Journal of Cell Biology even has an editor to focus on looking for suspicious pictures. Pesonally I can’t even imagine doing anything more drastic than adjusting brightness or something like that when a fluorescent signal is really weak, though I can see how easy it would be to make pretty drastic changes using something like Photoshop. But apparently it can be a significant problem, with the story stating that about 20% of papers need to be resubmitted because of improper alterations. The scientists claim that they feel pressure from journals to present perfect data but I can’t imagine how some would think it would be ok to do something like this:

“postdoctoral researcher Motoshi Sawada, had used Photoshop to put together some of the western blot images. In one example, he cut out a band from one position on the blot and pasted it into a second spot. In another, he reused bands from one blot in two separate figures. Sawada says that he felt under pressure to produce the figures quickly, and that one of the changes was a genuine mistake. He adds that he made the others so that the figures were clear and easy to understand. “

What do other people think, is anyone else as surprised at how widespread this actually seems to be?

One Response to “Photo Manipulation in Science”

I’ve been meaning to comment on this post for a while, and since I’m now sick of studying for my mid-term in a few hours, now seems a great time to do so. 😉

Sadly, I can’t say I’m that surprised at the 20% statistic. Especially in the field of biology, research has become BIG business, and to more and more researchers, all that matters (just like an company with shareholders) is the bottom line. They don’t care if their work is reproducable, clear, or even totally correct. Because they know if they get their high profile, dramatic articles in prestigious journals, it will advance their career and get them funding for companies they start (or patents they sell). In a sense, it’s just human nature. But I wish, sometimes, that we could occasionaly do better.

That said, it’s a hard problem. Even ignoring money and companies– your published work IS what builds your reputation for your career in science, and some people will exploit that. But I can’t think of a better way to judge a scientist then by the research he publishes, so we’re kind of stuck with it.

Some new digital cameras used by police departments incorporate a cryptographic hash into the image, which will be altered if any image manipulation is done on the picture, allowing photo evidence that’s harder to tamp;er with. Unfortunately, many images in science require SOME manipulation, such as raising the contrast or brightening the image. So I’m not sure that cryptographic standards will help– though I think they may become common in the news media in the next 15 years.

So, yeah… just some thoughts.

Paradoxdruid - April 25th, 2005 at 8:09 am

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