Analysis: Roughly 35,000 science papers with inappropriate image duplication at risk for retraction

Alyssa Rege - Print  | 

Approximately 35,000 scientific papers are at risk for retraction for inappropriate image duplication, according to Science Alert.

In a preprint study published by bioRxiv June 24, researchers analyzed 960 scientific papers published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology between 2009 and 2016 for instances of inappropriate image duplication using the human eye and, upon second inspection, specific software to double-check images that looked potentially doctored.

Researchers found of the 960 papers, 59 papers (6.1 percent) contained inappropriately duplicated images. Of those 59 instances, 42 corrections were issued, five papers were retracted and 12 instances did not result in any action taken.

Researchers said that while the majority of inappropriate image duplications resulted from errors during figure preparation and could be fixed by a correction, the journal MCB retracted less than 10 percent of papers with inappropriately duplicated images.

"At one end of the spectrum, inappropriate image duplications caused by simple errors in constructing figures raise concerns about the attention given to the preparation and analysis of data. While at the other end of the spectrum, problems resulting from deliberate image manipulation and fabrication indicate misconduct," study authors wrote. "If this proportion is representative, then as many as 35,000 papers in the literature are candidates for retraction due to image duplication."

"Studies like ours are … meant to raise awareness among editors and peer reviewers. … Catching these errors before publication is a much better strategy than after publication," Elisabeth Bik, PhD, one of the study's lead authors, told Retraction Watch.

"We are just starting to recognise these problems. … I also expect, unfortunately, that people who really want to commit science misconduct will get better at photoshopping and generate images that cannot be recognised as fake using the human eye," she continued.

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