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Case study: suspicion of inappropriate image manipulation

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

Louise has submitted a manuscript for publication on behalf of her co-authors (her supervisor and one other collaborator, Nadia), and the manuscript has been put out for peer review. After a few weeks she is contacted by the journal Editor, who tells her that one of the reviewers is concerned, as he feels there may have been inappropriate manipulation of some of the images in preparing the work for publication. He has, therefore, asked to see the original image files, and the Editor would like Louise to provide them as soon as possible.

Louise’s co-author, Nadia, is very accomplished at dealing with digital images, and was responsible for preparing the images for this paper. Louise isn’t very skilled at this sort of work, and so was grateful for Nadia’s offer to do this. Unfortunately, Nadia is away on holiday, and Louise isn’t sure where the original image files are stored. She checks the shared data drive, but when she accesses what she thinks are the images for the study, it’s impossible for her to work out which files refer to which treatments, or which are the original files.

The journal editorial office has contacted Louise to check when they can expect to receive the requested image files. The reviewer is due to leave for an extended field trip in a few days, and if he doesn’t receive the original image files before then he won’t be able to carry out the review for the journal.

Louise is not sure what to do. Her supervisor won’t be able to help, as he is even less familiar with digital images than she is. He also generally doesn’t involve himself in the day-to-day capture and handling of data.

Questions for discussion

  1. What are the possible courses of action for Louise?
  2. How should Louise deal with the journal?
  3. How might Louise guard against future similar incidents?
  4. What do you think is the general level of awareness and knowledge about appropriate and inappropriate manipulation of digital images? How could awareness of good practice and potential problems be raised?

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