127 papers from India retracted for image duplication, manipulation

Since 2011 and particularly in the last three-four years more papers are getting flagged and retracted for problematic images

July 13, 2019 07:11 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 08:39 am IST

Unlike plagiarism in papers published in scientific journals, image duplication in the same paper or in different papers and image manipulation have hardly received any attention. Fortunately, this is beginning to change. Since 2011 and particularly in the last three-four years more papers are getting flagged for problematic images. And the number of papers with questionable images getting retracted is also growing suddenly.


A searchable database of retracted papers launched in October last year by Retraction Watch blog has about 18,000 papers since the 1970s. The database was screened for retracted papers from India. Of the 982 papers that have been retracted so far from India, 330 have been for plagiarism. Surprisingly, 118 papers from India have been retracted for image duplication and/or manipulation.

Of the 118, 54 papers have been retracted for image manipulation and the remaining for image duplication. There are a few papers that contain both image duplication and manipulation. However, nine retracted papers that did not figure in the database have been added taking the total number of papers retracted for image duplication and/or manipulation to 127.


The number of papers retracted has suddenly increased since 2016, with 18 papers retracted in 2019, 37 papers in 2018, 15 papers in 2015 and 21 papers in 2016. At 20, Dr. Rashmi Madhuri and Prashant Sharma of IIT Dhanbad have the most number of retracted papers. They are co-authors in all papers.

While 127 papers retracted might be a fraction of the number of papers published each year from India, it is still a huge number considering how reluctant journal publishers are in retraction.


“Journals are not very responsive [in retracting or correcting papers with problematic images],” Dr. Elisabeth Bik who is a Science Consultant at Harbers-Bik LLC, San Francisco, California and an expert in identifying duplication and manipulation in images says in an email to The Hindu. “Of the 782 papers that I reported in 2014 and 2015 [for image duplication and manipulation], 44 have been retracted, two have an expression of concern, and 196 have a corrigendum or erratum. The remaining 540 papers have not been corrected, as far as I know. That means that five years after problematic papers have been reported, only one third of them have been corrected or retracted. That number is much too low, in my opinion, and it means that journals are not very willing to take any action.” The reluctance becomes all the more glaring as at least 50% of papers had images suggestive of deliberate manipulation.

Dr. Bik along with two other authors found 782 papers with problematic images from a dataset of 20,000 papers published by researchers from many countries in 40 journals from 1995 to 2014. The study was published in 2016 in the journal mBio . The authors reported the problematic papers to the respective journals.

Compared with the U.S and China, there are relatively fewer papers from India that gets published. But Bik’s study found India had 1.93 higher-than-predicted ratio of papers containing image duplication. In 2018 , Dr. Bik and others analyzed 960 papers published in Molecular and Cellular Biology from 2009 to 2016. They found 59 papers contained duplicated images leading corrections for 41 papers and five retractions. “The majority of inappropriate image duplications result from errors during figure preparation that can be remedied by correction,” they write. The journal instituted a pilot program where all the accepted papers were screened for images prior to publication. In just two months, the journal identified image concerns in 12 of the 83 papers. “Image screening can identify papers with problematic images prior to publication… and required an average of 30 minutes of staff time per problematic paper,” they write.

According to a small study of 200 papers that were about to be accepted for publication in The Journal of Clinical Investigation , 21% (42 of 200) of papers had issues with Western blots and 27.5% (55 of 200) of papers had problems with images. The study was carried out between July 2018 and first week of February 2019. They found 49 of 55 papers with image issues were “minor transgressions”.

“The absolute number of retractions has risen over the past few decades, from fewer than 100 annually before 2000 to nearly 1,000 in 2014. But retractions remain relatively rare: Only about four of every 10,000 papers are now retracted,” says an article in the journal Science .

Shift of opinion


The good news is that journals are beginning to shed their reluctance to retract papers involving problematic images. “There appears to be a trend towards a faster response time; perhaps under the influence of social media discussions or a shift of opinion of the general audience that these cases should be handled faster,” Dr. Bik says.

Unlike in the case of plagiarism where there are software available to detect it and almost all journals routinely use them, no such software or system is available for detecting image duplication and manipulation. But that shortcoming is to a small extent getting addressed in a completely different way. The Journal of Clinical Investigation is relying on Dr. Corinne L. Williams, an editor who has an “excellent eye for image duplication”, to find such faulty papers. “The Journal of Biological Chemistry has been a pioneer though, screening images after acceptances very carefully and asking for originals if there was any doubt. But only if they suspected something,” says Dr. Bik. The Molecular and Cellular Biology “instituted a program to analyze the figures in all accepted manuscripts before publication, modeled after a similar program used by the Journal of Cell Biology ” Dr. Bik and others write in the 2018 paper. Now, more and more journals have started demanding for unedited, raw image data from authors at some stage of the publication process.

A catalyst that is bringing about this change is the PubPeer website, which allows independent researchers to publish post-publication review of scientific papers. The independent researchers are “increasingly making use of PubPeer or social media to describe papers of concern,” says Dr. Bik. “Almost all remarks about problematic images on PubPeer appear correct, and there is an active community who will comment if they do not agree,” she adds. The popularity of PubPeer can be gauged by the regular mention of the website in articles on science misconduct. “So we can assume that more and more people are becoming familiar with PubPeer,” Dr. Bik says.

And the results are showing. At least one paper from India with questionable image gets posted on PubPeer at least once in two days. With The Hindu reporting on papers with problematic images from half a dozen institutions, there is a sudden rush by Indian researchers to post their responses on PubPeer.

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