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Image Processing Useful in Research Misconduct Cases

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Image processing can be a useful tool in the forensic examination and extraction of information from contested figures and images. For example, a test of the authenticity of a photomicrograph or an autoradiogram is sometimes central to resolving an allegation of research misconduct. The origin of questioned images can be tested by comparing shapes and position of features, artifacts, and subtle background. Examination for hidden erasures and for patterns of reuse can address questions about honest error. Missing original numerical data that was used to construct plots can be recovered to test an associated claim for data reduction or for statistical tests. Both parties to an allegation should insist on objective and reproducible forensic measurements.

Two useful image processing programs in the public domain are the well known NIH Image for the Macintosh Computer and the more powerful ImageJ, which can be run on the Mac or the Windows environment. Both programs can be obtained on the Internet, starting at http://rsb.info.nih.gov/nih-image. Widely used commercial software, such as Photoshop (Adobe), has also proven useful when supplemented with plugins from the Image Processing ToolKit (Reindeer Games) that can also be used to enhance NIH Image. TIFF files scanned on either the Macintosh or a Windows platform can, if needed, be exported to the other for examination and/or for higher quality printing. Uncommon software should be avoided, as should "lossy" compression, eg. JPEG.

ORI's experience to date indicates the potential of image processing in research misconduct investigations to visualize otherwise hidden or "random" features of the background to compare the origin of two figures; to reconstruct a parent Northern blot from overlapping, separately published components; to test the authenticity of a blot shown only as a bad photocopy; to determine whether two different images represent manipulation of the bands' position in the same experimental blot; and to automate the recovery of numerical data from point data plots and from continuous waveforms.

ORI advice about image processing and the visual presentation of the analytical results is available to any institution conducting an investigation. Contact Dr. John Krueger at (240) 453-8800, or by Email, jkrueger@osophs.dhhs.gov.