If you have not read it, go check out Nicholas Wade’s article on doctored images in scientific publications. This is especially pertinent given the recent Hwang Woo Suk stem cell debacle. There is nothing all that revolutionary, but Wade gives a nice review and introduces us to some of the editors who are trying to catch the cheaters. In commenting on the article, John Hawks brings up a good point regarding Photoshop:
“I don’t worry too much about Photoshopping illustrations of fossils. Instead I worry about two things.
“One is picture selection. It is easy to choose pictures that support your argument and hide pictures that don’t. Sometimes these are really obvious, like when two bones are shown side by side in different orientations. When that happens, you just know that something isn’t what the paper is saying.”
I’m not too concerned with fossils — I think I’ve only seen one scientific talk that involved fossils — but I do see a lot of talks with pretty pictures of cells and tissues (one of the side effects of being an evolutionary geneticist is that you end up getting exposed to developmental and cellular genetics as well). Keep in mind, I’m not talking about doctoring pictures of gels (where I think the biggest concern lies). More on images in publications after the jump . . .
About a year ago, I was talking with another graduate student, and the topic of statistical rigor in different areas of genetics came up. He also studies population geneticists, and we commented how in evolutionary genetics it’s impossible to not be exposed to statistics that go over your head, and you have to do your best to tread water and make sense of all the math. We also agreed that it was aggravating that in other areas of research, a lot of information is presented as a “sample size of one” (I’ll get to what I mean by that in a moment).
Now, I am not arguing that the mathematics in other areas of genetics is not important. In fact, I think it’s often overlooked how important statistics are in all of science. Researchers that use genetics as a tool to study development and cell biology do perform statistical tests that show significant differences in some quality between two genotypes. I’m often surprised, though, by how limited the understanding of statistics is in the non-quantitative areas of genetics.
What bothers me most, however, is that aforementioned sample size of one. Anyone who has seen a talk in which mutant and wild-type phenotypes are shown knows that there is usually one representative for each phenotype. This is often the best picture the researcher could find of what they consider the archetypical mutant. There could be different penetrance, depending on environmental conditions which lead to variations in the expression of the mutant phenotype, but we never know because we are only shown a single picture. Oftentimes, it’s not clear whether the mutant phenotype shown is found in all individuals with a particular genotype or just a few, and we’re seeing a picture of one of them. I got so frustrated with this sample size of one that I began asking anyone who showed a picture of a mutant phenotype whether all of the individuals have the phenotype or if they just picked out a particularly good picture. I think I stopped going to these types of talks before anyone admitted cheating (and I really don’t think it’s a very big deal, but it bothered me none the less).
But why do people manipulate images? There’s the obvious reason that they needed to cheat in order to get their paper published (a major concern). But there is also a lot of competition for who can produce the prettiest pictures. If you want your paper to make the cover of an issue, it doesn’t hurt if you have some eye-catching illustration. Being on the cover equals more exposure for your research, and every scientist wants exposure. The Drosophila community also gives out awards for the best published image of the year (I bet other research communities do this too), which is great for exposure. I don’t know how big of a problem cheating is in these areas, but it’s not as big of a concern if you doctored your image to make it look better than if you did it to change your results. It’s not like these people are adding or removing bands from gels, but there is the pressure to manipulate your images.