Accurate reporting of data is an essential part of the research process. However, the misreporting of results in biomedical research publications, whether intentional or otherwise, can and does occur. This has contributed to an overall increase in retractions in recent years.
The extent of one form of data inaccuracy, specifically inappropriate image duplication, was assessed in a recent study by Bik et al. The authors visually inspected images from over 20,000 papers published across 40 scientific journals for problematic figures. Papers with figures containing electrophoretic, microscopic or flow cytometric data were assessed for duplications that fell into one of three categories:
- Simple duplications in which figures contained identical panels
- Duplication with repositioning in which figures showed clear regions of overlap
- Duplication with alterations in which figures containing altered images with complete or partial duplication of particular aspects, such as gel bands or groups of cells
The study revealed that 782 (3.8%) papers contained inappropriate image duplications and the authors suggested that at least half of these were a result of deliberate manipulation. They observed that the prevalence of image duplications increased after 2002 and that journals with higher impact factors were less likely to have problematic figures.
The authors concluded that current standards appeared inadequate in preventing inaccurate papers from being published. They emphasised that the errors detected in this study were identified without the use of forensic software tools, suggesting greater vigilance of authors, reviewers, and editors may be all that is required to identify inappropriate figures.