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Scientific Fraud Is Slippery to Catch—but Easier to Combat

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Like much of the internet, PubPeer is the sort of place where you might want to be anonymous. There, under randomly assigned taxonomic names like Actinopolyspora biskrensis (a bacterium) and Hoya camphorifolia (a flowering plant), “sleuths” meticulously document mistakes in the scientific literature. Though they write about all sorts of errors, from bungled statistics to nonsensical methodology, their collective expertise is in manipulated images: clouds of protein that show suspiciously crisp edges, or identical arrangements of cells in two supposedly distinct experiments. Sometimes, these irregularities mean nothing more than that a researcher tried to beautify a figure before submitting it to a journal. But they nevertheless raise red flags. 

PubPeer’s rarefied community of scientific detectives has produced an unlikely celebrity: Elisabeth Bik, who uses her uncanny acuity to spot image duplications that would be invisible to practically any other observer. Such duplications can allow scientists to conjure results out of thin air by Frankensteining parts of many…

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