Recently on social media, news broke that Xuetao Cao duplicated or manipulated images in more than 50 papers of his. These accusations were brought to the public by Elisabeth Bik and explained in great details in following article

using social media and pubpeer website they notice duplication in images. pubpeerimage as someone who finished MSc in Immunology I can't understand what is wrong with images, they look credible to me, although there might be some software that can tell difference. How is possible that so many figures got duplicated and no-one from peer reviewers noticed? What is this scientific misconduct about? If it is really one after all.


2 Answers 2


Without considering the actual case. A referee is not an investigator/detective. This is why figures/tables/photographs might be composed or manipulated without being noticed at first.

It is right what you say: they look credible and likely make sense in the context of the work. Though, some entries look copied and pasted. This is a recurrent case. Sometimes the authors take a pace in which even ex-novo fabrication of data is time and energy consuming.

An example of how things can go is this: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schön_scandal

  • He has H index 36. How is that possible. Schön.
    – SSimon
    Nov 19, 2019 at 11:26
  • @SSimon likely the count considers the retracted papers.
    – Alchimista
    Nov 19, 2019 at 11:50
  • But they still cite him. Amaizing. In his case fraudulent behavior was apparent. He didn't hide it well.
    – SSimon
    Nov 19, 2019 at 13:05
  • @SSimon no. The papers were highly cited.
    – Alchimista
    Nov 19, 2019 at 16:22
  • 1
    No. They are still in 2019 cited. Which is strange
    – SSimon
    Nov 19, 2019 at 17:19

The claim here is that the Figure 2 and Figure 6A look like they separate blot, but if you look at the pixel level shape of the dark blue highlighted bands, you'll see they are the same band. I.e. the bands being used to say that the mock in Figure 2 had no effect on p-IkBa are the same bands that are used to claim that the mock in what is presented as an entirely different experiment had no effect.

You might argue that they have demonstrated that mock treatment has no effect once, isn't that good enough - but in that case, why present it as though t were a different experiment? Its not just that they are presented as though they are on the same membrane, but also look at the columns -

Bands in the same column are supposed to have come from the same physical sample - the same membrane probed with a different antibody. Both Figure2 and Figure6A have been probed for both p-IkBa and p-JNK, but where as the bands for p-IkBa are the same across blots, the bands for p-JNK are different. That suggests that in at least one of the figures, the bands for p-JNK did not come from the same samples as the bands for p-IkBa.

As for why this wasn't spotted- this stuff is pretty hard to see unless you look really carefully for it - examine the deformities in each band, where are the dust grains (e.g. in the fourth IkBa band there is a black bulge on the top of the band about 3/4 of the way along). I wouldn't have seen this unless someone had told me it was there.

  • 1
    Interesting. Imagine how many others tried harder to falsify data. Here is than lazy or sloppy try. Is this reason of reproducibility crisis
    – SSimon
    Nov 19, 2019 at 11:30
  • 2
    “Is this reason of reproducibility crisis” Not really, no. It’s generally caused by a bias for publishing “interesting” results rather than “I tried a thing, and nothing happened” results.
    – nick012000
    Nov 20, 2019 at 1:17

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