CSE's White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publications


3.4 Digital Images and Misconduct

The revolution in electronic communication has meant that many journals now have a completely electronic workflow. Manuscripts, including both text and figures, are submitted as electronic files, which are then imported into layout templates by production departments. Electronic workflows provide efficient transfer of information and improved reproduction of image data. They also afford journal editors a new opportunity to examine the images in figures for evidence of manipulation.

The ease of image manipulation in powerful applications like Photoshop may tempt authors to adjust or modify digital image files. Authors have been using these applications for more than 10 years; however, during most of this time journals have had paper workflows, which meant that editors saw only a printout of the images and could not examine the image files. Electronic workflows make these files available to journal editors. Simple forensic techniques can now reveal manipulations that would not have been visible on a printout. Many of the manipulations that are detected constitute inappropriate changes to the original data and may indicate that scientific misconduct has occurred. In more egregious cases, such manipulations may constitute fraud. For the purposes of this section of the document, fraud is defined as falsification or fabrication of image data; it is not meant to encompass the legal criteria of intent or harm to a third party who relied on the data.

As editors implement electronic workflows, they have a responsibility to set guidelines for authors on the proper handling of image data. Clear guidelines are important, because some level of image manipulation is accepted practice (e.g., image cropping or limited adjustment of brightness and contrast), and authors must understand the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable manipulation.

After guidelines are established, editors have a responsibility to enforce them. To do so requires the establishment of definitions of misconduct, procedures for identifying misconduct, and policies for handling misconduct.101 Click here for examples of editorial letters related to this topic (refer to letters 4, 5, and 14-17).

Guidelines developed by The Rockefeller University Press have been published elsewhere (along with examples of different types of manipulation).119 Examples of guidelines from other publishers can be found here:

  • Journal of Cell Biology120
  • Nature121
  • Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences122
  • Science123

This section will primarily discuss how the journal editor should enforce these guidelines.

3.4.1 Guidelines for Handling Image Data

The Rockefeller University Press has established 4 basic guidelines:

  • No specific feature within an image may be enhanced, obscured, moved, removed, or introduced.
  • Adjustments of brightness, contrast, or color balance are acceptable if they are applied to the whole image and as long as they do not obscure, eliminate, or misrepresent any information present in the original.
  • The grouping of images from different parts of the same gel, or from different gels, fields, or exposures must be made explicit by the arrangement of the figure (e.g., dividing lines) and in the text of the figure legend.
  • If the original data cannot be produced by an author when asked to provide it, acceptance of the manuscript may be revoked.

These comprehensive guidelines were developed in 2002 by The Rockefeller University Press and are now used by many other journals.

3.4.2 Enforcing the Guidelines

Examining image files. A simple "forensic" analysis of the images in a figure file can be accomplished by using the basic "Brightness/Contrast" slide bars in Photoshop to reveal inconsistencies in the pattern of background pixilation that are clues to manipulation or inappropriate adjustments to brightness and contrast. For color images, more sophisticated adjustments to contrast using the "levels" slides may be necessary to reveal inconsistencies; a clear example is provided by Rossner and Yamada (Figure 6 in their article).119

Defining misconduct. The Rockefeller University Press has defined 2 types of digital image-related misconduct: inappropriate manipulation and fraudulent manipulation. Inappropriate manipulation refers to adjustment of the image data that violates the established guidelines but does not affect the interpretation of the data. Examples include adjustments of brightness/contrast to a gel image that completely eliminate the background (so the reader cannot tell how much of a gel is shown) or that obscure background smears or faint background bands. Another example is the splicing of images from different microscope fields into a single image that appears to be a single field. Fraudulent manipulation refers to adjustment of an image that affects the interpretation of the data. Examples include deleting a band from a gel to "fix" a negative control that did not work or adding a band to a gel to indicate the presence of product that was not really there.

Handling misconduct. If a clear case of "inappropriate manipulation" is detected, the author should be required to resubmit the figure in question with a more accurate representation of the original data. This approach applies only to adjustments for which there are clear solutions to remedy the problems; for example, lines need to be added to a gel image to indicate that lanes have been spliced out. In such cases, it is not necessary to request the original data from the author. If there is any possibility that the manipulation may be fraudulent, the journal editor should be alerted, and the original data should be obtained from the authors for comparison to the prepared figure. Although the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) guidelines for editors indicate that cases of "suspected" misconduct should be reported either to the ORI or to an author's institution,124 journal editors should attempt to resolve the problem before a case is reported. This is because the vast majority of cases do not turn out to be fraudulent.

Obtaining original data. Authors' reputations for impeccable research integrity among their scientific peers are vital for success in their careers. Authors will thus be concerned when the integrity of the data in a manuscript accepted for publication is questioned. It is important for an editor to reassure authors at this initial stage of investigation that only the presentation of the data is being questioned and not its scientific quality, which has already been vetted by peer reviewers and academic editors. The letter requesting original data can even point out that often the inconsistencies revealed by image "forensics" are simply caused by the transfer of images from one computer application to another (e.g., from PowerPoint to Photoshop) and that it is possible that no manual adjustments have been made by the authors. In addition, an editor could point out that it is in the authors' interest to resolve the inconsistencies before the images are published online, because they may be questioned by a reader. Authors should also be assured that the inquiries at this stage are strictly confidential.

3.4.3 Procedure for Handling Guideline Violations

If a comparison of the original data with the prepared figure indicates that images have been inappropriately but not fraudulently manipulated, the author should simply be asked to remake the figures with a more accurate representation of the original data.

If the comparison reveals that fraudulent manipulation has occurred, the first step is to revoke acceptance of the paper. At the Journal of Cell Biology, the conclusion that fraudulent manipulation has occurred must be agreed on by 4 people before such action is taken: the managing editor (a PhD scientist), the academic monitoring editor, the academic senior editor, and the academic editor-in-chief. Other journals are encouraged to adopt similar procedures.

A policy for reporting misconduct should be developed by each journal (see sections 3.1, 3.2, and 3.3). Misconduct can be reported either to an author's institution or to the ORI.125 The Journal of Cell Biology does not report digital image-related misconduct if the principal investigator takes responsibility for the action and indicates that measures have been taken to avoid image manipulation in the future.

Many institutions that receive Public Health Service (PHS) funding have an ombudsman for allegations of misconduct in science, whom a journal can contact if it decides to report misconduct to an author's institution. Absent an ombudsman, every institution that receives PHS funding has an individual who has signed the PHS "Letter of Assurance," which indicates that the institution will abide by the PHS code of conduct.

(Authorship: Mike Rossner took the lead in writing this section of the white paper on behalf of the CSE Editorial Policy Committee. Daniel Salsbury revised this section for the 2009 Update. Members of the Editorial Policy Committee and the CSE Board of Directors reviewed and commented on it. This section was formally approved by the CSE Board of Directors on March 29, 2009.)

3.4.4 Additional Resources

Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Forensic tools. Available at: http://ori.dhhs.gov/tools/data_imaging.shtml (Accessed March 29, 2009).

Sample correspondence: Editor to author request for original files (e.g., figure files). Available at: http://www.councilscienceeditors.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3335 (Accessed January 31, 2011).

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  1. Rossner M, Yamada K. What's in a picture: the temptation of image manipulation. J Cell Biol. 2004;166:11-15.
  2. Journal of Cell Biology: Image acquisition and manipulation. Available at: http://jcb.rupress.org/misc/ifora.shtml#image_aquisition (Accessed January 20, 2011)
  3. Nature. Image integrity and standards. Available at: http://www.nature.com/authors/editorial_policies/image.html (Accessed January 20, 2011).
  4. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Figure preparation. Available at: http://www.pnas.org/site/misc/iforc.shtml#ix (Accessed January 20, 2011).
  5. Science. Resolution, file format, and modification of figures. Available at: http://www.sciencemag.org/about/authors/prep/prep_revfigs.dtl#format (Accessed January 20, 2011).
  6. Office of Public Health and Science. Managing allegations of scientific misconduct: a guidance document for editors. Available at: http://ori.dhhs.gov/documents/masm_2000.pdf (Accessed January 20, 2011).
  7. The Office of Research Integrity (ORI). Available at: http://ori.dhhs.gov/ (Accessed January 20, 2011).