That's a pretty alarming statistic. But either way you look at it, the findings (which have not yet been peer-reviewed) suggest scientific publishing has a major quality control problem in terms of properly vetting images in papers - and that's when the duplications don't represent something even more sinister.
"At one end of the spectrum, inappropriate image duplications caused by simple errors in constructing figures raise concerns about the attention given to the preparation and analysis of data," the authors of the analysis write.
"While at the other end of the spectrum, problems resulting from deliberate image manipulation and fabrication indicate misconduct."
The team, led by microbiologist and science editor Elisabeth Bik of biotech company uBiome, sifted through 960 papers published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) from 2009 to 2016.
Using software to double-check any images that looked potentially doctored, the researchers ultimately discovered 59 (6.1 percent) of the articles contained inappropriately duplicated images.
"If this proportion is representative, then as many as 35,000 papers in the literature are candidates for retraction due to image duplication."
That's a pretty breathtaking figure, recalling the gravity of previous research by Bik which found problematic images haunted some 4 percent of biomedical papers.
So, what's the solution? According to the team, their analysis isn't a witch hunt, but it is supposed to act as a wake-up call to this invisible, endemic oversight.
"Studies like ours are … meant to raise awareness among editors and peer reviewers," Bik told Retraction Watch.
"Catching these errors before publication is a much better strategy than after publication."
In a pilot program at MCB as part of the research, the team found it took journal staff six hours to deal with problematic images once they had been published, but only 30 minutes to address the images before publication.
In other words, it won't only save science's reputation to tackle this problem head-on before papers get published - it's also a more efficient use of editorial resources.
Giving staff training on how to spot duplicated images could be a big help, as would ensuring researchers enlist extra colleagues to help them vet or prepare images for papers, to cut down on mistakes.
These techniques will help mitigate the problem, and they'll need to, too - because the technological sophistication of image forgery isn't going to stand still, the researchers warn.
"We are just starting to recognise these problems," Bik said.
"I also expect, unfortunately, that people who really want to commit science misconduct will get better at photoshopping and generate images that cannot be recognised as fake using the human eye."
The pre-print findings are reported in bioRxiv.
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