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Fraud in Science: Reality Mirrors Art Mirrors Reality

- June 4, 2008


I recently read Intuition, Allegra Goodman’s novel of high-stakes science, competitive research labs, and scientific fraud. IF you haven’t already done so, put it high on your reading list.

Anyway, I was immediately reminded of Intuition when I encountered, in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a longish piece on what is apparently the increasingly widespread practice of sweetening or even outright faking the images in scientific articles. (The cite is: Jeffrey B. Young, “Journals Find Many Images in Research are Faked,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 6 2008, pp. 1, 10-11. I’ve provided the hard-copy cite because the article is available online here, but it’s gated and it’ll cost you, so you might prefer to track down the paper copy instead.)

Here are some relevant excerpts from the Chronicle article::

bq. …[w]hen an editor of The Journal of Clinical Investigation did a spot-check of one of {a post-doctoral fellow’s] images for an article in 2005, [her] 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 … 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.

bq. 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 …Ten to 20 of the articles accepted by The Journal of Clinical Investigation each year show some evidence of tampering, anfd about five to 10 of those parpers warrant a thorough investigation …. (The journal publishes about 300 to 350 articles per year.)

bq. Experts say many young researchers may not even realize that tampering with their images is inappropriate. After all, people now commonly alter digital snapshots to take red out of eyes, so why not clean up a protein image in Photoshop to make it clearer? ‘This is one of the dirty little secrets — that every massages the data like this,’ says [a computer-science professor at Dartmouth who has been working with journal editors to help them detect image manipulation and who terms the magnitude of such fraud ‘phenomenal.’]

bq. ..[S]ome researchers are concerned about the level of scrutiny, arguing that it could lead to false accusations and unnecessarily delay research.

At least in my field, or the parts of it I know best, everybody Ieverybody is verbally committed to maintaining high ethical standards, so my purpose here isn’t to point fingers. Rather, it’s to note that:

*. Despite this commitment, we rarely discuss such matters.

*. We typiically become irate when we hear about such cases, and favor throwing the book at the miscreant.

*. When an impropriety occurs in our own shop, though, we prefer to handle it quietly, off the books, without taking “official” action or leaving behind much, if any, of a record of it and what was done about it.

*. When new procedures are put in place to protect against such fraud, we tend to regard them as cumbersome intrusions that make it even more difficult for us to do our work. Which they often are.

Again, I’m not pointing fingers — or, if I am, I’m pointing toward the mirror as well as toward others. And I’m certainly not preaching from on high, for my own discipline isn’t exactly leading the field in grappling with these issues. Ratherr, my point is that all this is an enormously complex set of issues that often becomes more gray than black and white in real-world situations (as opposed to abstract posturing or administrative rule-making). My consciousness of these complexities was enhanced a by the Chronicle piece, but my recent reading of Allegra Goodman’s novel had already done an excellent job of laying out the basic issues.