About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Outcomes, Expensive Outcomes | Main | Low Energy Records »

December 6, 2013

Shop Up Some Gels For the Paper

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

There have been many accusations over the years of people duplicating and fudging gels in biology papers. The site made quite an impression with some of these, and there are others. But as in so many other fields, manual labor is giving way to software and automation.

Nature News has the story of an Italian company that has come up with an automated way of searching images in scientific papers for duplication. The first scalp has already been claimed, but how bad is the problem?

Now midway through the analysis, he estimates that around one-quarter of the thousands of papers featuring gels that he has analysed so far potentially breached widely accepted guidelines on reproducing gel images. And around 10% seem to include very obvious breaches, such as cutting and pasting of gel bands. Some journals were more affected than others, he says. Those with a high impact factor tended to be slightly less affected. He plans to publish his results.

I'll be happy to see the paper, and glad to see this sort of technique applied more broadly. I wonder if it can be adapted to published NMR spectra?

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: The Dark Side | The Scientific Literature


1. a. nonymaus on December 6, 2013 11:56 AM writes...

This could explain a lot of the irreproducibility that has been previously commented on if the literature is this full of "making it up". However, I am curious to see what tests have been done on Bucci's algorithm to determine its false positive (and false negative) rate.

Permalink to Comment

2. Piacere on December 6, 2013 12:31 PM writes...

Here is a link to gels in 2 papers. Color coded arrows show identical bands in the two.

Permalink to Comment

3. Kazoo Chemist on December 6, 2013 1:04 PM writes...

Reverse image searching works pretty well on the internet. This wouldn't identify cases where an image was "cut up and rearranged" in Photoshop, but it should find duplicates.

TinEye is a pretty good reverse search engine.

For example, if you search on the "2002 Model" picture of Derek it returns hits for this site, as well as links to articles in The Laszlo Letter and ar seekingalpha where Derek's picture appears.

Permalink to Comment

4. Dietmar on December 6, 2013 1:33 PM writes...

How hard would it be to write a piece of software that can produce an NMR spectrum or a gel with desired characteristics from scratch? Experimental noise is not that hard to reproduce.

Permalink to Comment

5. Anonymous on December 6, 2013 1:57 PM writes...

Soon the world will be driven by two kinds of software in an evolutionary arms race: one that makes up results, and the other that detects them.

Permalink to Comment

6. lazybratsche on December 6, 2013 2:28 PM writes...

If I'm reading the Nature News article correctly, the quote that Derek posted isn't quite as horrifying as it seems at first glance. The news piece seems to say that this analysis was done on a subset of papers published by Italian scientists that have collaborated with scientists with retracted papers.

In other words, it's not as bad as "25% of all blots are fraudulent".

Permalink to Comment

7. dave w on December 6, 2013 5:00 PM writes...

Seems like high schools have been doing something like this for a while now: it's my understanding that many now require students to submit their term papers electronically via online services such as "", which purport to automatically check for things like text duplicated from "stock" papers available on the internet.

Permalink to Comment

8. Wow chemist on December 7, 2013 9:54 AM writes...

@4 you don't even need to do that. Seems when looking at the image one could just make a gel with different amounts of the protein loaded in the different wells and claim that's the cell/binding data. I have never really understood the whole photoshop manipulation thing when low tech cheating is likely easier. In science it's about trust and it amazes me people do stuff like this that is immoral and so easy to detect

Permalink to Comment

9. eugene on December 8, 2013 11:51 AM writes...

"If I'm reading the Nature News article correctly, the quote that Derek posted isn't quite as horrifying as it seems at first glance. The news piece seems to say that this analysis was done on a subset of papers published by Italian scientists that have collaborated with scientists with retracted papers"

I don't think you're reading it correctly. What I got from the article is that he decided to focus on Italian scientists because there were too many problematic images from all over the place and he needed to narrow things down to minimize the workload. Probably, 'Italian' is a good criteria as any since he could correspond with the authors in their native language and he has Italian citizenship so he could always claim a degree of patriotism by wanting to see the Italian academy do good science. It would have looked really strange, on the other hand, if he decided to narrow the problematic papers that his software identified, by focusing only on the French problematic gels.

Permalink to Comment

10. eugene on December 8, 2013 11:55 AM writes...

Some other selection criteria could be 'top 10 universities' or 'specific journal', but I think it's less problematic to focus on your national group. Plus, if Italy is representative of the wider world, with some researchers being high-fliers, some publishing lots in low impact journals, the results can easily be extrapolated.

Permalink to Comment

11. Chris Croy on December 9, 2013 3:04 AM writes...

@3: Google's reverse image search works much better than TinEye. To use it, go to and click the camera icon on the search bar.

Permalink to Comment

12. SAR Screener on December 9, 2013 4:27 AM writes...

@ Eugene
I think post no 6 was referring to the fact that these scientists had already been linked to a scientist with retracted papers and so 1/4 of gels in a subset of scientists who collaborate with people that have retracted papers is not necessarily going to translate into '1/4 of all papers contain dodgy gels'.

Permalink to Comment

13. ljote on December 9, 2013 4:49 AM writes...

oh no, not more of this... "shop up some gels" clearly means "go to the workshop [i.e., the lab] and run some gels".

what's the problem? nothing to see here...

Permalink to Comment

14. cliffintokyo on December 9, 2013 8:09 AM writes...

How about taking a break from the polemics for the holidays? Then after a refresh, redouble the efforts.

Permalink to Comment

15. Kazoo Chemist on December 9, 2013 8:11 AM writes...

@11: Thanks for the tip. I have used both. With TinEye there is a Browser plug-in. With that installed all you need to do is right click on the image and select the search function from the pull down menu. There is probably something similar for Google, but I don't have it installed.

Permalink to Comment

16. Iridium on December 9, 2013 8:16 AM writes...


That is pretty much what is happaning for professional sport and doping.

Permalink to Comment

17. Kazoo Chemist on December 9, 2013 8:18 AM writes...

@15: Doh!! I was using IE as the browser. I forgot that the image search is built into Chrome with the right click function. It does give better results presented in the typical Google format. I'll stick with that.

Permalink to Comment

18. Christian on December 9, 2013 10:11 AM writes...

Does someone know whether changing the dimensions of gels is considered a breach of the guidelines? I haven't been able to find any information on this. I am talking about the practice of making the gel "shorter" so that the lanes are wider and shorter than normally.

This makes it take up less space in the manuscript and (in my personal opinion) makes it easier to see separate bands that are close together. I have seen several groups do it, however it is not mentioned in most journal guidelines.

Permalink to Comment

19. eugene on December 9, 2013 12:28 PM writes...

@ SAR screener

You're right, but I think I'm also partly right on my point too:

"Bucci and his team created a database hosting all accessible biomedical papers published since 2000. But cleaning it of scientific contamination was not the quick job he had imagined. First he removed retracted papers; then he created a network of scientists who had been co-authors at least three times with authors of the retractions.

The list ran to more than one million..."

One million might not be 1/4 of all people (or articles, the link is not quite clear) who published something related to gels, and it might not mean 1/4 of all papers, but it is not an easy to dismiss number.

Permalink to Comment

20. Anon on December 9, 2013 12:54 PM writes...

@18 Christian
That likely is not acceptable.
If one was to be "looking" for a band in a certain area, they could just as well lengthen the gel to make it appear more obvious. One could also hide unfavorable bands, whether that be light chain/heavy chain bands or a protein-protein interaction.

Permalink to Comment

21. schinderhannes on December 10, 2013 8:18 AM writes...

This what it lead to with MDs beeing trained like this:

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry