Publication Ethics: Barriers in Resolving Figure Concerns

March 11, 2021

Why does it take so long to resolve concerns about figures in scientific publications?

Most figure concerns are created out of error and may present themselves in the form of image duplication, splicing and various figure enhancements. Data figures are critical parts of research publications, as they might be used as standalone images, and inaccuracies within the data images can send researchers on a chaotic search for results that are impossible to replicate, hurting the entire field. Over the years, methods for identifying figure concerns have evolved dramatically. This has created several unique opportunities for journals, research institutions and private consultants to prevent, decrease and eliminate data figure concerns to ultimately improve the quality of research publications. Nevertheless, even in this digital age, resolving figure concerns takes a tremendous amount of effort as there are multiple barriers that extend the investigation process.

The Process of Resolving Figure Concerns

Often working independently, private consultants investigate research publications with the aim of discovering figure concerns that may have been overlooked by research institutions and journals. Among these individuals is Dr. Elisabeth Bik, a well-known private consultant who reports figure concerns to journals, Twitter and PubPeer. She has single-handedly identified and reported thousands of ethical concerns, which she detects first by eye and then confirms by using image analysis tools like Image Twin. After identifying a figure concern, like several other private consultants and other readers, Bik relies on her communication with journal editors and authors, who can usually work together to correct the issue.

When figure concerns are identified or reported to journals, like those published by the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), specific ethics policies and procedures are followed. These policies follow the guidelines established by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). COPE provides a rational approach with clear instructions that focuses on communicating with the authors and determining whether or not the figure allegation was created out of error. The investigation is initiated with an internal review—figure specialists at the journal use forensic tools, like those established by the Office of Research Integrity, to screen the data files for potential figure concerns. If figure concerns are confirmed, the editors or ethics specialists notify the authors.

Since human error is a common reason behind published figure concerns, ASM remains mindful and vigilant while investigating to prevent unnecessarily tarnishing a researcher’s reputation. Oftentimes, the concern does not proceed past the authors, who tend to be extremely responsive. Authors retrieve the original data and identify the error created, which is fixed by the publication of an Author Correction. The Author Correction provides “a means of correcting errors of omission and errors of a scientific nature that do not alter the overall basic results or conclusions of a published article."

The speed of this process largely depends on ASM’s ability to contact the authors, along with the author’s timeliness and success in obtaining and providing the original data. It goes without saying that this can be extremely tedious, especially for older publications, as the original data may be located at a former institution or inadequately stored. Additionally, author contact information may change after publication, extending the time it takes to notify the author of the alleged concerns. Notifying authors can take months without the assistance of researchers' institutions.

If the authors respond with an unsatisfactory explanation regarding the figure concerns, the journal relies on the author’s institution for further investigation. This investigation is performed by a committee consisting of faculty members who explore the complaint by speaking to the authors/researchers, recovering the original research files and performing a private, independent analysis of the original data. Government sponsors expect for the investigation to be completed within 3 months. Unfortunately, this part of the investigation may be extensive in itself, as the committee members are performing these duties in addition to their full-time academic positions. Additionally, multiple figure concerns and multiple papers take longer to address and recovering the original data files could take months alone.

The investigation process of research institutions when figure concerns are identified.
The investigation process of research institutions when figure concerns are identified.
Source: Lataisia Jones, Ph.D.

Similar to ASM’s process, if the allegation is supported by the evidence, the committee determines whether or not the concern was created out of error. If so, the Research Integrity Officer (RIO) communicates this information with the journal to acquire guidelines in completing an Author Correction. If the figure concerns are determined to have been made intentionally or through knowingly manipulating the data, the funding agencies are notified. These funding agencies then decide to either accept the insitution's findings or to complete a private investigation, which adds additional time to the process. Furthermore, the institutional committee is required to provide a report to the authors, who have 30 days to respond. At this point, the process for determining institutional sanctions commences.

Barriers to Correcting Figure Concerns

In summary, there are several players and procedures involved in resolving figure concerns. Additionally, barriers within the investigation process can drastically extend the time it takes to reach a resolution. These barriers include the following:

  • Inability to contact the authors and/or difficulties in finding author institute and contact information.
  • Author’s inability to provide the original data in a timely manner.
  • Inadequate data storage.
  • Addressing multiple vs. single figures.
  • Other obligations of investigative committee members.
  • Number of parties involved in the investigation (i.e. research institution, funding agency, sponsors).

How can scientists work toward eliminating these barriers? Moreover, what are the best practices to avoid making errors that lead to these lengthy investigations in the first place?

Eliminating Figure Concerns and Barriers in Resolving Them

Scientists avoid mistakes created during the figure assembly process when they use established ethical guidelines within their research practices. Additionally, RIOs offer guidance and extend this education through means of courses or workshops that assist in maintaining the scientific integrity of publications that originate at an institution. If a reviewer or editor identifies a figure concern before publication, ASM pauses the publication process to speak to authors about figure concerns in an effort to resolve them before final publication. Private consultants like Bik use online platforms and social media to bring alleged reports to the attention of journals and research institutions. She also uses this approach to educate her followers by posting examples of figure concerns after the removal of author identifiers and labels.

Outside of education, the investigation process improves in efficiency and timeliness when readers, private consultants, journals and research institutions combine their efforts and communicate with each other. For instance, having publicly available journal and research institution contact information speeds up the process of communicating with authors and allows individual access to a direct source to resolve these concerns. Additionally, if journals and research institutions require personal identifying information from authors, such as an ORCiD identifier, this might expedite the time required to locate authors, particularly overseas. Most importantly, if researchers, research technicians, laboratory trainees and volunteers establish and maintain a healthy data management plan that preserves the original data, recovering files will take less time and allows the investigation to continue with determining if the allegation is corroborated. Altogether, these efforts contribute to saving time in resolving figure concerns and ensures that the readers have access to accurate data.

Author: Lataisia Jones, Ph.D.

Lataisia Jones, Ph.D.
Dr. Lataisia Jones is the Senior Ethics Specialist at the American Society for Microbiology.