Image: Wikimedia Commons.
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Picture perfect vs. perfect genuine…

With free digital image editing software has come the temptation to ‘massage’ images so that they look their best.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It has been oft-claimed that a picture is worth a thousand words. In the space-constricted world of science publishing a well-executed image can indeed save valuable text and convey often complicated information in a ‘much-more-easily-comprehended’ way. But in this digital-imagery age ‘building a convincing figure is a demanding task that covers different steps ranging from content acquisition to figure assembly in editing software’. Furthermore, it can get rather technical and ‘notions of image processing are required when it comes to even simple tasks such as cropping or resizing images and assembling them in a single figure’. A Franco-German co-operation between Jérôme Mutterer (Bio-Image facility, Institut de Biologie Moléculaire des Plantes du CNRS, Strasbourg, France) and Edda Zinck (International Media and Computing, HTW, Berlin, Germany) aims to help this with the creation of ‘FigureJ’ – an ImageJ plugin – which is dedicated to the preparation of figures for scientific articles and is described in their recent ‘Hot Topic – fast-tracked short communication’. FigureJ is free and open-source software, can be obtained from, and – amongst other benefits – produces pixel-precise panel arrangements.

But… with greater pressure on decisions over career-advancement by publication output, and the ease of access to all sorts of digital-pokery, has come the temptation to ‘massage’ images so that they look their best (or even better than their best…). This has been recognized for some time and instances of such ‘manipulation’ are regularly highlighted by Retraction Watch. Such tampering is quite simply wrong and unacceptable; there can be no happy ending for this form of massage. Whilst all decent, honest practitioners know this, sometimes reminders are needed. So, by way of raising awareness in terms of ‘what is and what isn’t acceptable’ in the world of image ‘enhancement’, a joint statement by the Plant Cell and Plant Physiology expands and expounds upon those journal’s existing stances on this matter. And to help in the task of picture-policing, those two journals have access to unspecified ‘forensic tools’ to analyse cases of suspected mishandling of images. You have been warned! Both Editors-in-Chief hope that this approach ‘will help strengthen the scientific community and the reliability of the data we publish’. Hear, hear! Or, rather, we’ll see…

[Right, that’s the pictures sorted, what about dodgy text and made-up results, as exemplified by recent revelations that a spoof science (both senses of the word!) paper was accepted for publication by several ‘open access’ journals leading its perpetrator – one John Bohannon – to question many aspects of the science publishing business (for such it has become…) – Ed.]


Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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