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Inappropriate Manipulation of Digital Images 

Inappropriate Manipulation of Digital Images
Ethical and Legal Considerations

Annette Flanagin

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Subscriber: null; date: 20 June 2018

Inappropriate Manipulation of Digital Images

Image processing software, such as Adobe Photoshop, has made it relatively easy for authors to manipulate images to highlight a specific outcome or feature by cropping or by adjusting color, brightness, or contrast. These same applications can be used by journal staff to screen digital images for evidence of inappropriate manipulation and fraudulent manipulation.19,20 Some enhancements to figures, such as cropping or adjusting color of the entire image, may be appropriate if such manipulations do not alter the interpretation of the original data or omit or obscure important data. However, any manipulation that results in a change in how the original data will be interpreted or that selectively reports, omits, or obscures important data (such as adding or altering a data element or adjusting tone or compression of an image to make it appear as a uniquely different image) is considered scientific misconduct.19,20 Authors should indicate any changes or enhancements that have been made to digital images in the legend that accompanies the image. (See also 4.2.10, Visual Presentation of Data, Figures, Guidelines for Preparing and Submitting Figures.) These same principles apply to images included in video files.

Journals should have policies and procedures in place for screening of digital images.19,20 If resources are limited, screening can be limited to those images that are included in papers that have been accepted for publication. The Journal of Cell Biology has the following policy and guidelines for authors that are a good model for other journals21:

No specific feature within an image may be enhanced, obscured, moved, removed, or introduced. 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 (ie, using dividing lines) and in the text of the figure legend. If dividing lines are not included, they will be added by our production department, and this may result in production delays. 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, including backgrounds. Without any background information, it is not possible to see exactly how much of the original gel is actually shown. Non-linear adjustments (eg, changes to gamma settings) must be disclosed in the figure legend. All digital images in manuscripts accepted for publication will be scrutinized by our production department for any indication of improper manipulation. Questions raised by the production department will be referred to the Editors, who will request the original data from the authors for comparison to the prepared figures. If the original data cannot be produced, the acceptance of the manuscript may be revoked. Cases of deliberate misrepresentation of data will result in revocation of acceptance, and will be reported to the corresponding author’s home institution or funding agency. [Reproduced with permission of Journal of Cell Biology.]

During a 3-year period of screening images in all manuscripts accepted for publication, the Journal of Cell Biology had to revoke acceptance of 1% of papers after detecting “fraudulent image manipulation that affected interpretation of the data.”19 In addition, 25% of the accepted manuscripts had at least 1 figure that had to be remade because of inappropriate manipulation that did not affect the interpretation of the data but that violated the above guidelines.

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