Meet the people busting scientists who fake images in research papers

In biomedical research alone, an estimated $2 billion may have evaporated last year over papers that were retracted due to doctored images. Now, a growing body of researchers are turning to AI to catch crooked scientists in the act, and hopefully solve this decade-old issue.

On September 10, a controversial paper was published in the Scientific Reports journal claiming that a homeopathic treatment formulated from the poison ivy plant could ease pain in rats. While the uproar was initially due to the fierce debate surrounding the efficacy of homeopathy, it intensified when it turned out that the paper had doctored images.

This was not the first case a research paper on a controversial topic had turned out to have falsified images. Last month, we reported the case of an anti-vaccination paper being retracted from Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry because it had fake images.

Image falsification in academic papers can be anything from that of microscopic view of materials, cells, tissues, or gel bands representing the concentration of chemicals, or even the images of graphs based on research data.

How bad can it be, right?

The scourge of image forgery in academic research papers is quite prevalent.

Two weeks back, a database of 18,000 retracted research papers (dating as far as the 1970s) was launched, making it the largest of its kind. Of these, 317 papers were retracted for image falsification – which is about 1.7 percent of the overall papers.

An earlier study of 20,000 research papers by Stanford microbiologist Elisabeth Bik also revealed that about 2 percent of all papers were worth retracting for image falsification.

Lets put that in perspective. Arjun Raj, an associate professor of Bioengineering in University of Pennsylvania, noted that the science behind an average biomedical research paper cost around $300,000 – $500,000. And Lancet reported that US researchers published nearly 152,000 papers in 2012 – the year Raj came up with the estimate.

So even if we take the lower limit, the cost of all the biomedical science papers published by US researchers in 2012 would have been close to $50 billion.

If 2 percent of those papers needed retraction for image forgery, the US may have wasted close to $1 billion in 2012 because of the Machiavellian means of its researchers. That’s a figure greater than what the country loses every year to the Nigerian prince scam.

As the global scientific output doubles every nine years, the negative margin might’ve gotten even bigger since 2012.

Has image tampering always been this bad?

Some researchers believe that the problem has gotten worse over the years.

Mike Rossner is the founder of the company Image Data Integrity (IDI) that helps institutions in their internal investigations on suspected image manipulation, and assists journals that do not have in-house image detectives. Speaking to TNW he said:

Data from the United States Office of Research Integrity (ORI) indicates that the percentage of cases that they handled involving image manipulation increased after the release of Photoshop (in 1990 for Mac and in 1996 for PC).