Western blots

Many image problems (duplications, manipulations) in scientific papers are found within Western blots. Several readers have asked me to explain what Western blots are, so here is a blog post written with the amazing help of Jon Cousins to provide some insights.

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The Tadpole Paper Mill

Tadpoles. Modified image by MarjanNo from Pixabay.

Most posts on this website are about duplications within or between figures in the same paper, or about duplications found between papers by the same group of authors. But now, our small group of image forensics detectives has come across a large set of papers – over 400 as of today – from different authors and affiliations that all appear to have been generated by the same source. Based on the resemblance of the Western blot bands to tadpoles (the larval stage of an amphibian, such as a frog or a toad), we will call this the Tadpole Paper Mill.

Update: for those who cannot access the Google Sheets link above, here is a PDF version embedded in WordPress which I hope will work for all (generated March 3, 2020):

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No Manipulation Was Detected in This Image

This post is not an accusation of misconduct.

In a previous post, I wrote about the high percentage of image concerns in papers published in Oncotarget, an Open Access journal. PubPeer, the post-publication peer review website contains many posts about Oncotarget papers flagged by me and other image duplication detectives.

Instead of reflecting on these concerns and improving their peer review and quality control process, Oncotarget apparently has decided to try to prove that these concerns are not real.

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Oops!… I Did It Again. When to correct or retract?

How many image duplications in a paper would be acceptable? If the paper has two identical photos that represent different experiments, and the authors’ reply is: ‘Oops, we uploaded the wrong photo’, that would be acceptable. Mistakes happen, and the authors can correct the error by sending in an erratum with the correct photo(s). But should editors be equally forgiving in the case of two cases of “Oops, we made a mistake”, or other, more complicated scenarios?

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Types of image duplications: the palm trees

In a previous post, I went over the three types of image duplications that can be found in biomedical papers. Those types of duplications, however, might be hard to understand for people who are not familiar with scientific photos of western blots or biological tissues.

In this post, I want to give some simple, non-scientific examples, to better explain which types of duplications I am looking for in published papers.

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Gasping for air: 18 papers from Sichuan University and UCSF

This blog post is not an accusation of misconduct, and reflects my personal opinion.

Happy New Year! I started 2020 by scanning a set of papers from researchers at the Department of Pediatrics, West China Second University Hospital, Sichuan University, Chengdu, with a connection to the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). These researchers use a pretty cruel baby rat model to investigate the effect of oxygen deprivation on the developing brain. I found that one out of five papers from this group appears to have image problems.

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A study on Oncotarget papers

In 2016, with coauthors  Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang, I published a study on 20,000 biomedical papers with photographic images, in which we found an average of 4% to contain inappropriately duplicated images.

Not surprisingly, we found that percentage to vary per journal. Some of the 40 journals we investigated had much higher percentages of image duplicates than others.

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Don’t correct science papers with manipulated photos – Retract!

(Based on two Twitter threads from yesterday).

All too often, blots that appear to have duplicated lanes or cells (suggestive of photo manipulation) are corrected by the author with an “Oops, here is a new figure”.
Bewilderingly, journals find this acceptable. This has to change.

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Concern about stem cell research from KU Leuven and the University of Minnesota

In the past week, I looked at papers from the group of Catherine Verfaillie, who previously worked at the University of Minnesota (USA) and later became the director of the Stem Cell Institute at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven; Belgium). The outcome of this renewed look at a “cold case” was first described by Leonid Schneider in a December 4 post on his For Better Science blog.

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