Laying Publication Ethics Nightmares to Rest

Oct. 30, 2023

Ethical concerns sound frightening, and unexpected issues send chills down a researcher’s spine. Fortunately, the ASM Journals Ethics team has the tools to neutralize the horrors that lurk in the darkness. Ensure that your research and writing follow good ethical practice to avoid these journal publication nightmares! 

The Gel Ripper and Unacknowledged Splicer 

2 mosaic images. The left version does not have tooling lines incorporated. The right version utilizes white tooling lines to delineate the individual image tiles.
Example 2A contains a mosaic image generated without tooling lines. Example 2B has tooling lines incorporated to delineate the individual image tiles.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Image manipulation concerns, such as the "gel ripper" and "unacknowledged splicer," are perhaps the easiest laboratory nightmares to overcome. These mischievous spirits haunt imaging software, merging multiple images into a single, new image. The gel ripper might tear out a blank lane in a Western Blot or slice out controls to re-use in another figure. The unacknowledged splicer strikes when you generate a collage or similar image without any space between the individual tiles. The best way to defeat this gruesome twosome is with tooling lines. Mark the boundaries of your images to negate the power of the Gel Ripper and the Unacknowledged Splicer. 

Vampire Approval  

Vampires might not need approval to collect specimens from living things, but researchers do. An Institutional Review Board (IRB) or Institutional Animal Care Use Committee (IACUC) approval that meets both governmental and institutional requirements is necessary to conduct clinical research, and publishers may come looking for proof of such credentials. Like a string of garlic, keep a copy of your approval close at hand. Remember to include an ethics statement in your manuscript and be ready to present the IRB and/or IACUC approval form and number should a publisher or reviewer request it. When in doubt, protect yourself by uploading this documentation when you submit your manuscript for review. 

Frankenstein’s Manuscript 

Source: American Society for Microbiology
Keep track of your parts! When bringing your manuscript to life, make sure to credit everyone involved. All authors must agree to changes in authorship and receive credit for their part in assembling your team’s creation. This includes any images dug up from previous publications, as well as all data and text. Keep "Frankenstein’s manuscript" under control by following open data policies, ensuring that your materials and data are accessible and give appropriate attribution and citation to all contributions and references.  

The Haunted Artifact 

2 images of cells. The left image is the submitted manuscript version. The second image is created with image forensic tools showing a box-shaped artifact behind the scale bar.
Image forensic tools can detect artifacts even on a black background. This image contained a scale bar the authors found dissatisfactory. The old scale bar can be seen as a black box in the image from the forensic image analysis.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
A "haunted artifact" is invisible until imaging software reveals it hiding in the background of an otherwise beautiful image. The aberration may have been a cell that floated in to ruin a perfect image or a scale bar that wasn’t the right size. Beware, you can never be rid of a haunted artifact. It will always reveal itself under scrutiny. Better to avoid summoning these specters in the first place and be mindful of how images are configured. Additionally, all image enhancements must be uniform across the image.  

The Phantom Collaborator 

The "phantom collaborator" seems like your friend. This fiend may take many different forms: an academic institution, a fellow researcher or an independent contractor, to name a few. They assist with specialized testing and imaging for your manuscript. They provide resources or data for your research. But then, once a manuscript is submitted for publication, the phantom collaborator vanishes without a trace, taking everything with them. You may not be able to access this data. They may not want to answer questions about a figure’s creation. They may even refuse to acknowledge your calls. Guard yourself from the phantom collaborator by retaining adequate, extensive documentation and backups, along with copies of the underlying, original data. Take these precautions so that if a phantom ghosts you, they will be unable to harm your publication. 

The Ghost Writer 

Source: American Society for Microbiology
Sometimes a "ghost writer" is invited to collaborate on a project—a shadowy figure writing undercover. Some ghost writers take the form of artificial intelligence gained from the digital realm. Others covertly collect pieces from other authors’ articles. Whatever the origin, this secretive specter takes over the creation of a manuscript and inscribes the text without the effort of the research team. The only way to defeat the ghost writer is to remember Poe’s raven and quote the source. Ensure that all writing is your own. Never allow a ghost writer into your laboratory or office. All authors must be able to assume responsibility and receive credit for their content. Source attribution is the best way to banish these spirits. 

Evil Twin 

An image array of fungal cultures under various conditions. Duplicate images are marked by red boxes.
In this array of fungal cultures, duplicate images are marked by red boxes.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
Double vision is never a good sign. Images can be reused or borrowed from another article or even a different section of the same article if they are acknowledged. The very existence of an unacknowledged duplicate can increase the heart rate of readers and researchers alike. The most important thing is to acknowledge the image’s source and the reason for reusing it. Never duplicate someone else’s image without permission or acknowledgment. No one should have to worry about falling victim to an "evil twin." The ASM Ethics team can help reveal and remove any accidental doppelgangers created in the lab. Don’t allow the evil twin to corrupt your work—maintain a good data management system with comprehensive records and be prepared to show proof that the original creator consented to the reuse.   

The Publication Mummy 

Any of these laboratory nightmares possess the power to mummify your publication (i.e., wrap it up in ethical concerns that prevent it from seeing the light of day). The "mummified manuscript" becomes frozen in time, and the only way to release it is by preserving your data and following the appropriate ethical practices described above. Follow rigorous laboratory procedures, maintain proper documentation and keep communication open and transparent to move your article to publication. 

The Zombie Manuscript 

The "zombie manuscript"—work that has been resurrected and is being questioned—is likely the most terrifying publication nightmare of them all. How was this figure made? What were the precise measurements for this variable? Where did this number come from? Like a jump scare in a dark hallway, these questions can even pop up on public forums. There is only 1 way to finish off the zombie manuscript permanently: work together with the ASM Ethics team. You may not be able to prevent the questions altogether, but our team can help you minimize your vulnerability and outlast an attack.  

In short, your ethics encounter does not have to become a horror story. Follow the advice given here to prevent and/or conquer these laboratory nightmares once and for all. 

Do you have an ethics concern? Do you see questionable images lurking in a publication? Contact the ASM Ethics Team! 

Author: Aashi Chaturvedi, Ph.D.

Aashi Chaturvedi, Ph.D.
Aashi Chaturvedi, Ph.D., is the Senior Ethics Specialist at the American Society for Microbiology.

Author: Alicea Hibbard, MHA

Alicea Hibbard, MHA
Alicea Hibbard, MHA, joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Ethics and IDEAA Senior Associate in 2023.