Image manipulations are unfortunately a rather widespread practice in biomedical literature, where a large part of research data in figures consists of microscopy or gel images. Some of the most commonly detected issues in this regard are image duplications. These can range from possible negligence like duplicated western blot images, to deliberate data fabrication, evidenced by duplications of select image fragments such as gel bands. Sometimes, it is difficult to believe in the accidental nature of duplications: I reported of a case where one single western blot put an appearance whole twelve times in several publications by the Brazilian diabetes researcher Mario Saad and his colleagues. Some of his papers have been retracted by now.
Elisabeth Bik is not only a competent microbiologist at Stanford University and public-outreach-blogger, she is also a human image fabrication detector. Even the most cleverly spliced band duplications are unlikely to be overlooked by Bik, who by now screened over 20,000 papers from 40 different journals for duplications and other image irregularities. For her project, Dutch-born microbiologist teamed up with colleagues and known research integrity activists Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang (who previously established misconduct as lead cause of retractions and demanded a reform of the Nobel Prize). The trio presented the results of Bik’s analysis in a bioarxiv-preprint titled “The Prevalence of Inappropriate Image Duplication in Biomedical Research Publications”, where they calculated that
“3.8% of published papers contained problematic figures, with at least half exhibiting features suggestive of deliberate manipulation”.