Tech-savvy scientists seek bogus findings with their investigative gadgets.

January 28, 2024


  • Scientific integrity and the detection of fakery and plagiarism in published research are being brought to light by amateur sleuths using advanced technology.
  • Sholto David, a scientist-sleuth from Wales, recently flagged problems in over 30 published papers by scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, leading to requests for retractions and corrections to be made.

Scientists and researchers are increasingly using technology to identify instances of fakery and plagiarism in published research. This has been highlighted by recent allegations of research fakery at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a Harvard Medical School affiliate. Sholto David, a scientist-sleuth, detected image manipulation in over 30 published papers by Dana-Farber scientists, leading to requests for retractions and corrections to be made. David is not the only science sleuth using technology to uncover questionable research practices, as other champions of scientific integrity conduct investigations using specialized software and their eagle eyes to find flipped, duplicated, and stretched images, as well as potential plagiarism.

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute announced on January 22 that it is requesting six retractions and 31 corrections of scientific papers after David flagged problems in a recent blog post. The papers under scrutiny involve lab research on the workings of cells, including one that used samples from bone marrow from human volunteers. The problems were spotted by David and others, including sleuths on the site PubPeer, which allows anonymous comments on scientific papers. The blog post and subsequent media coverage have put pressure on the institute to take action and investigate the allegations. Several journals have indicated that they are aware of the concerns raised in the blog post and are looking into the matter.

Other science sleuths are also using technology to detect image manipulation and plagiarism in published research. California microbiologist Elisabeth Bik has been sleuthing for a decade and has found doctored images in over 1,000 articles. She tracks what happens after she reports problems and has seen scientific journals retracting articles or correcting them based on her findings. Bik has published an analysis that showed nearly 4% of the peer-reviewed papers she examined had image problems, with about half of these instances appearing intentional.

Advancements in technology have made it easier for these science sleuths to uncover instances of fakery and plagiarism. They download scientific papers and use software tools to help find problems. Some sleuths remain anonymous and post their findings under pseudonyms. Together, these sleuths are using technology to hold researchers and science journals accountable and are changing the way scientific publications operate. They are motivated by a desire to improve scientific integrity and are concerned about the erosion of public trust in science.

The motivations for research misconduct can vary, with some mistakes being unintentional, such as mislabeling images, while others are intentional manipulations to make research findings appear stronger. Pressure to get published and the desire to build a successful career in academia can lead some researchers to falsify data or manipulate images. The peer review process is often unable to catch instances of fakery, which further incentivizes researchers to engage in misconduct. The science sleuths are motivated by a desire to maintain the integrity of science and ensure that the truth is being presented in scientific research.

Scientific journals are responsible for investigating errors brought to their attention, but the processes they follow are often confidential until they take action, such as retracting an article or issuing a correction. The work of these science sleuths is critical in uncovering instances of fakery and plagiarism and pushing for accountability in scientific research. They are driving change in the scientific publication process and pushing for a higher standard of integrity in scientific research.