Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp 639–667 | Cite as

Avoiding Twisted Pixels: Ethical Guidelines for the Appropriate Use and Manipulation of Scientific Digital Images

  • Douglas W. CromeyEmail author


Digital imaging has provided scientists with new opportunities to acquire and manipulate data using techniques that were difficult or impossible to employ in the past. Because digital images are easier to manipulate than film images, new problems have emerged. One growing concern in the scientific community is that digital images are not being handled with sufficient care. The problem is twofold: (1) the very small, yet troubling, number of intentional falsifications that have been identified, and (2) the more common unintentional, inappropriate manipulation of images for publication. Journals and professional societies have begun to address the issue with specific digital imaging guidelines. Unfortunately, the guidelines provided often do not come with instructions to explain their importance. Thus they deal with what should or should not be done, but not the associated ‘why’ that is required for understanding the rules. This article proposes 12 guidelines for scientific digital image manipulation and discusses the technical reasons behind these guidelines. These guidelines can be incorporated into lab meetings and graduate student training in order to provoke discussion and begin to bring an end to the culture of “data beautification”.


Digital image Ethics Manipulation Image processing Microscopy 



This essay began as a brief two-page newsletter article in February of 2001 that was intended primarily for graduate students and staff. As the guidelines have been refined and revised over the last several years, I have benefited greatly from the insight and feedback of colleagues at the University of Arizona, with specific thanks to: Carl Boswell, David Elliott, Patty Jansma, R. Clark Lantz, Claire Payne, Dana Wise, and Jeb Zirato. Additional feedback from John Krueger of the Office of Research Integrity, and Sara Vollmer of the University of Alabama—Birmingham, is appreciated. The author would like to specifically thank Michael W. Davidson and his colleagues at the Molecular Expressions website (Florida State University) for developing the online resources that carefully explain some of the technical concepts referred to in this article. Adobe and Photoshop are registered trademarks of Adobe Systems Incorporated, San Jose, CA. Microsoft, Powerpoint, and Windows are registered trademarks of the Microsoft Corporation, Redmond, WA. Apple and Macintosh are registered trademarks of Apple Computer, Inc., Cupertino, CA. Corel and Photo-Paint are registered trademarks of the Corel Corporation, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. This work was supported in part by the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWEHSC), a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) funded center (ES006694). The views, opinions, and conclusions of this essay are not necessarily those of the SWEHSC, the NIEHS, or the University of Arizona.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Cell Biology and AnatomyUniversity of Arizona College of MedicineTucsonUSA

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