Via Evolgen, an article by Nicholas Wade on tools to recognize doctored images that accompany scientific manuscripts. Perhaps because “seeing is believing,” pictures (including visual presentations of data) have been a favored weapon in the scientist’s persuasive arsenal. But this means, as we know, that just as images can persuade, they can also deceive.
The deceptions Wade discusses in the linked article rely primarily on using Photoshop to cover up inconvenient features (like bands on gels), to resize isolated parts of images, to rotate things, and the like. Wade writes:
At The Journal of Cell Biology, the test has revealed extensive manipulation of photos. Since 2002, when the test was put in place, 25 percent of all accepted manuscripts have had one or more illustrations that were manipulated in ways that violate the journal’s guidelines, said Michael Rossner of Rockefeller University, the executive editor. The editor of the journal, Ira Mellman of Yale, said that most cases were resolved when the authors provided originals. “In 1 percent of the cases we find authors have engaged in fraud,” he said.
Notice that while most of the manipulations were not judged to be fraud, there was a fairly high proportion — a quarter of the accepted manuscripts that had illustrations — that violated JCB guidelines.
Possibly this just means that the “Instructions to Authors” aren’t carefully read by authors. But it seems likely that this is also indicative of a tendency to cherry-pick images to make one’s scientific case in a manner that would seem pretty darn sneaky were it applied to data. You can’t just base your analysis on the prettiest data; why should you get to support your scientific claims with the prettiest available images?
RPM has a lovely discussion of this, including the phenomenon of “picture selection”. And the Wade article gives a nice feel for how the mathematical features of digital images can make alterations that aren’t detectable by the naked eye as altered quite easy to find with the right algorithms. Either this kind of image doctoring will get smacked down quicker than a student paper cut and paste from the internets … or the job opportunities for mathematicians in science labs may increase. (Knowing how the algorithms work may make it possible to find ways to defeat detection, too.)
But that’s not the part of the Wade article that got my dander up today. The bit I want to discuss (below the fold) is whose responsibility it is to catch the folks trying to lie with prettied-up images.
I should explain that before I read the Wade article, I was at a beginning of the semester faculty meeting. At this meeting, someone raised a question about how we philosophy instructors ought to deal with students in our super-large “service” class that supports another college in the university. Despite the fact that course prerequisites include completing core general education requirements and passing a writing skills test, a frighteningly large proportion of the students in this service class can’t write intelligibly in English. Here in the Philosophy Department, of course, even our service classes require a great deal of writing. But, we don’t see ourselves as teachers of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and the like; we’re trying to teach philosophy. Ought we to cut these semi-literate students a break by squinting our eyes until we think we can make out a philosophical point in their essays? Ought we to be hard-asses and insist that the skills in written communication are a necessary precondition for demonstrating the required philosophical skills? (If not, can we shove electrodes into their brains to measure their understanding and take worries about writing skills off the table?)
Despite the fact that I don’t teach this super-large “service class”, I could feel the pull of arguments on both sides. On the one hand, the students’ home college (and whoever the heck was supposed to be teaching the students how to write in their core general education classes) passed them right through to us, despite the fact that they can’t write for beans. Maybe in their part of the workforce (and the corresponding departments of the university), written expression just doesn’t matter, and failing them just because of our silly attachment to comprehensible sentences is cruel. On the other hand, the fact that others may have abandoned their standards does not require that we abandon ours; perhaps we ought to be taking a principled stand for literacy as a requirement of passing a writing-intensive college course.
And here’s where we get back to the article on doctored images. In it, Wade writes:
Emilie Marcus, editor of Cell, said that she was considering the system [for detecting manipulation of digital images], but that she believed in principle that the ethics of presenting true data should be enforced in a scientist’s training, not by journal editors.
The problem of manipulated images, she said, arises from a generation gap between older scientists who set the ethical standards but don’t understand the possibilities of Photoshop and younger scientists who generate a paper’s data. Because the whole scientific process is based on trust, Dr. Marcus said: “Why say, ‘We trust you, but not in this one domain?’ And I don’t favor saying, ‘We don’t trust you in any.’ “
Rather than having journal editors acting as enforcers, she said, it may be better to thrust responsibility back to scientists, requiring the senior author to sign off that the images conform to the journal’s guidelines.
Those guidelines, in her view, should be framed on behalf of the whole scientific community by a group like the National Academy of Sciences, and not by the fiat of individual editors.
In some ways, the choice Dr. Marcus sets out here is a lot like the choice my colleagues were wrestling with in the faculty meeting: Whose job is it to ensure that a certain standard has been met?
Is it primarily the authors’ responsibility to ensure that “representative” images really are fair representations, free of any alterations that might mislead their viewers? Even if this requires that they come up to speed on new-fangled doohickeys like Photoshop that their younger collaborators are using so they can check up on those collaborators? Sure. If you’re doing science, it’s part of the job description to be honest — with your data sets, words, and images. And, as recent events seem to bear out, being your collaborator’s keeper might be a good idea.
But, does this mean journal editors don’t also have a responsibility to be alert to doctored images (as well as other signs of fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, and, while we’re at it, impenetrable prose)? I’m not sure this follows. Journal editors are, after all, members of the scientific community too. If they have reason to suspect that the images that come in with manuscripts are not meeting standards for honest scientific communication — and the JCB numbers look like reason to suspect this, whether or not there’s any ill intent in the creation of these images — then they have a responsibility to the community to at least say something about it. Indeed, since the journal editors have a relatively large degree of control over the “finished products” of scientific labor — published findings — they may have special duties to exercise due dilligence. Otherwise, how can the rest of the community put its trust in the scientific literature.
Dishonest conduct by scientists reflects badly on the community of science as a whole. Yes, there’s already a lot of work involved in being a journal editor. Yes, authors ought to take a more active role in making sure what gets submitted to the journals is truly true. But instead of saying, “Hey, that bit of policing isn’t my job!”, why can’t everyone in the community demonstrate a commitment to honesty by stepping up and calling doctored images out?