Using Technology to Detect Fakery and Plagiarism in Published Research

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School, has recently requested retractions and corrections for scientific papers following the identification of problems by a British blogger in early January. This incident has highlighted the efforts of various individuals dedicated to maintaining scientific integrity, who use specialized software, large computer monitors, and keen observation skills to detect image manipulation, plagiarism, and other errors in research and scientific journals.

The situation at Dana-Farber involves a blog post by Sholto David on January 2, which showcased suspicious images from over 30 published papers by four scientists, including CEO Laurie Glimcher and COO William Hahn. These images appeared to contain duplicated segments, potentially enhancing the strength of the scientists’ findings. The papers under scrutiny pertain to laboratory research on cell functions, including one involving samples from human volunteers’ bone marrow. Other issues with the papers were previously identified by sleuths on PubPeer, an anonymous comment platform for scientific papers. The story gained attention from various news outlets, including coverage by student journalists at The Harvard Crimson, and was further intensified by the recent plagiarism investigation involving former Harvard president Claudine Gay.

Dana-Farber has acknowledged that it was already investigating some of the identified problems even before the blog post. As of January 22, the institution stated that it was in the process of requesting retractions for six published research articles, while an additional 31 papers required corrections. Retractions are significant actions taken by journals when the research is deemed severely flawed, rendering the findings unreliable. Dr. Barrett Rollins, the research integrity officer at Dana-Farber, affirmed the institution’s commitment to promptly reviewing potential data errors and making necessary corrections. He stated that 97% of the flagged cases highlighted by blogger Sholto David had already been addressed.

Among the individuals dedicated to ensuring scientific integrity is California microbiologist Elisabeth Bik, who has been conducting investigations for a decade. As a result of her work, scientific journals have retracted 1,133 articles, corrected 1,017 others, and expressed concern in 153 cases. Bik has uncovered manipulated images of bacteria, cell cultures, and western blots, a protein detection technique. Her efforts are supported by Patreon subscribers, who contribute approximately $2,300 per month, along with occasional honoraria from speaking engagements. Other individuals involved in similar investigative work remain anonymous and publish their findings using pseudonyms. Collectively, these individuals have played a significant role in reshaping the landscape of scientific publication, highlighting the need for improvement and expressing concerns about the erosion of public trust in science.

Misconduct in scientific research can arise from various motivations. While some errors may be attributed to mislabeling or inadvertent selection of incorrect images, others involve obvious alterations such as duplication, rotation, or flipping of image sections. Scientists often face pressure to publish in order to advance their careers or secure tenure, which may lead to intentional falsification of data. Perpetrators of misconduct often exploit the peer review process, as the scrutiny from experts may not readily identify fraudulent practices. Ultimately, the motivation behind such misconduct is the desire to achieve publication success, even if it means enhancing or embellishing the data to align with the desired narrative.

Following the identification of errors, scientific journals typically conduct investigations while keeping their processes confidential until retractions or corrections are initiated. Several journals mentioned that they are aware of the concerns raised by Sholto David’s blog post and are currently looking into the matter.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, affiliated with Harvard Medical School, is requesting retractions and corrections of scientific papers after a British blogger flagged problems with more than 30 published papers by four of its scientists. The blogger identified duplicated segments in images that would make the results appear stronger. Other sleuths, including California microbiologist Elisabeth Bik, have been using special software and their keen eyes to find errors and fabrications in scientific publications. Dana-Farber has responded by already investigating some of the problems and is requesting retractions and corrections for six and 31 papers, respectively. The sleuths are motivated by a desire for scientific integrity and are frustrated by the lack of interest in correcting mistakes. Some errors may be due to sloppiness, but others involve intentionally falsifying data to enhance career prospects or secure tenure. Scientific journals are now investigating the concerns raised by the blogger.

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