This Science Vigilante Calls Out Bogus Results in Prestigious Journals
With pressure to “publish or perish,” some scientists fake their research results. Elisabeth Bik spends her days correcting them.
Elisabeth Bik spends her days trawling scientific papers, life sciences papers in particular, looking for signs of image manipulation. Put another way, she plays a backward game of “spot the difference” (backward because it’s more like “spot the similarity”) to seek out fraudulent work posing as science. She does this for free, week after week, along with other online science misconduct sleuths, in the pursuit of correcting the record upon which the world’s knowledge is based.
She is a self-appointed, image-manipulation detective — the Sherlock Holmes of science fraud.
It started with plagiarism before plagiarism became easy to catch. After reading about its prevalence in scientific papers, Bik, who had a 15-year career as a microbiology researcher, searched Google Scholar and found her own work had been copied. Then she set about finding other instances of this particular fraud. On one such investigation, she found a PhD thesis that not only had plagiarized text, but also an image that was reused throughout. The author had been trying to pass off the same image as a series of distinct results. “[The image] was mirrored, or turned around, but it had a very distinct little smear, which I recognized,” she says.
After reporting the fraudulent thesis to the university, resulting in its retraction, Bik realized she’d stumbled upon a new, strange hobby. “That was something I was good at, recognizing these patterns,” she says, “and so I started doing that more and more.” She soon found herself going through swaths of research papers during her evenings and weekends, and looking forward to getting home from her day job to continue.
It wasn’t long before Bik had amassed a huge collection of fraudulent papers. In 2016, she co-authored a paper revealing the fruits of her labor. Within her manual search of more than 20,000 pieces of biomedical research, 4% contained manipulated images. She reported those 800 papers, and she’s continued searching, sharing, and reporting ever since.