Though photo manipulation has become more common in the age of digital cameras and image editing software, it actually dates back almost as far as the invention of photography. Gathered below is an overview of some of the more notable instances of photo manipulation in history. For recent years, an exhaustive inventory of every photo manipulation would be nearly impossible, so we focus here on the instances that have been most controversial or notorious, or ones that raise the most interesting ethical questions.
We’ll continue to update this gallery as more incidents come to our attention, so if you come across any notable ones you think we should include, feel free to send us an e-mail at
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Entries in Science (8)
An article in the journal Nature reports on the impact of digital photography and image-manipulation software in science. For example, Mike Rossner, editor of the Journal of Cell Biology, estimates that roughly 20% of accepted manuscripts to his journal contain at least one figure that has to be remade because of inappropriate image manipulation. And, in 1990, 2.5% of allegations examined by the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, which monitors scientific misconduct, involved contested scientific images. By 2001, this figure was nearly 26%.
In 2004, Professor Hwang Woo-Suk and colleagues published what appeared to be ground-breaking advances in stem cell research. This paper appeared in one of the most prestigious scientific journals, Science. Evidence slowly emerged that these results were manipulated and/or fabricated. After months of controversy, Hwang retracted the Science paper and resigned his position at the University. An independent Korean panel investigating the accusations of fraud found, in part, that at least nine of the eleven customized stem cell colonies that Hwang had claimed to have made were fakes. Much of the evidence for those nine colonies, the panel said, involved doctored photographs of two other, authentic, colonies.
In 2001, Dr. Jon Sudbo of the Norwegian Radium Hospital in Oslo published a study, in the prestigious journal Lancet, contending that long-term use of certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduced the risk of oral cancer. This finding was touted as a way to shift the focus of treatment away from surgery and toward new drug therapies. These results were cast into doubt when it was revealed that 250 of Sudbo’s sample of 908 people in that study all shared the same birthday. In addition, it was revealed that two photographs from a microscope, reportedly representing two different patients at different stages of precancerous mouth lesions, were different magnifications of the same image. The editors of Lancet issued an “expression of concern” saying Sudbo’s research was “just complete fabrication.”
Missouri University professor R. Michael Roberts and co-authors retracted their paper (Cdx2 Gene Expression and Trophectoderm Lineage Specification in Mouse Embryos) published in Science after an investigation revealed that accompanying images were doctored. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the published research presented evidence that the first two cells of mouse embryos possess markers that indicate from a very early stage whether they will grow into a fetus or placenta. An investigating university committee found that lead author and post-doctoral researcher Kaushik Deb deliberately altered images of the embryos. Deb abruptly resigned his position and moved with no forwarding address or explanation. The committee said Roberts was cleared of wrongdoing by the committee, but that there was some concern over “whether he had acted appropriately at all times” during the research period. “Since he addressed that in the letter he sent to Science, we had no reason to suspect anything other than that he had been tricked.”
The August 2007 cover of the scientific publication Nature featured three autonomous aircraft taking atmospheric measurements. The top and bottom aircrafts, however, were cloned copies of each other. After a keen-eyed reader discovered this photo alteration, the Editors printed the following clarification: “The cover caption should have made it clear that this was a montage. Apologies.”
A study by Dario Sacchi, Franca Agnoli and Elizabeth Loftus, published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, shows that people’s memories of events can be altered by viewing doctored images. For example, when presented with doctored images of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest participants recalled the event as larger and more violent. (Shown in the lower panel is the doctored image in which the crowd was added.)
A three-year investigation into research by University of Connecticut professor Dipak K. Das found 145 instances of fabricated results, many involving digital images that had been manipulated. His research had focused on the health benefits of resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine. The university-sponsored investigation was in response to an anonymouse complaint in 2008 about irregularities in the research. Eleven scientific journals that published the work were notified about the results of the investigation, and dismissal proceedings were initiated against the researcher.