Digital image manipulation and scientific publishing

There is a growing trend among scientific journals to develop policies concerning the manipulation of digital images for publication.  Where editorial policies have tended to address issues of human subjects and quality, accessibility and preservation of digital images, more and more emphasis is being placed on addressing the ethical concerns of manipulation.

While policy details vary slightly among journals, there is a consensus that the final image must remain consistent with the original data.  Unacceptable manipulations generally include adding to, altering, moving or removing a specific feature of an image.  Acceptable manipulations generally include adjustments of contrast, brightness, or color that must be applied to an entire image equally.  Often, where figures are assembled from multiple images or non-concurrent portions of the same image, these separate parts must be indicated.  In many cases, authors will be asked to list all the tools used for image acquisition and processing, and to document key image-gathering settings and manipulation processes if any.  Overall, the general rule of thumb is that the final image for publication must correctly represent the original data and conform to community standards.

For an example of illegitimate digital image manipulation, see Mike Rossner’s analysis of a paper published on stem cell research that appeared in Science in 2005.

The following resources about digital image manipulation and scientific publishing provide further information.

Journal policies


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