Jan 11, 2006

Technology seen abetting manipulation of research

Source: Boston Globe
Written By Gareth Cook

An explosion of new digital image technology has left many of the world’s top biology journals vulnerable to fraud, scientists say.

The same advances that have given consumers inexpensive digital cameras — and software to easily copy, crop, or alter an image with a few clicks — have also proven a temptation for unscrupulous researchers. Federal science fraud investigations involving questionable images have grown from 2.5 percent of the cases in 1989-90 to 40.4 percent in 2003-04, according to the federal Office of Research Integrity, which investigates scientific misconduct. And in just the past few months, there have been two high-profile cases — those of discredited South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk and the fired MIT biologist Luk Van Parijs — that involve duplicated images.

The manipulation of images of cells can give a scientist a way to convince colleagues that experiments were successful when they were failures. By merely changing images on a laptop, scientists can earn acclaim, win lucrative research grants, and advance their academic career.

For decades, many scientists and journal editors have assumed that cases of scientific fraud are extremely rare because few come to light each year. The scientific community, they believed, had adequate checks against fabrication, such as the practice of other scientists repeating experiments after they’re published.

But an innovative program at one leading biology journal challenges these assumptions. In September 2002, the Journal of Cell Biology began examining all the images in papers it had tentatively accepted but not yet published, using the software program Photoshop. The journal has had to reject 1 percent of these papers because authors manipulated images in a seriously misleading way, adding or subtracting elements that changed an experiment’s results, according to Mike Rossner, the journal’s managing editor. Photoshop makes it easy to manipulate an image, but it also allows someone to adjust an image and look for signs of manipulation.

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