The science that cheats papers: Why the Schillaci “case” reopens a case that was never closed

The science that cheats papers: Why the Schillaci “case” reopens a case that was never closed

The accusation is not new these days: duplicating or modifying images – which especially in biomedicine serve as evidence because they are used to measure outcomes – to direct scientific research data in the desired direction. In short, “fraud,” or as insiders prefer to call it, “misconduct.” But in this case, the person who has caused a sensation – in Italy and beyond – is one of the authors involved in the alleged scam I reported. Investigation by Il Manifesto: That is, the Italian Minister of Health Orazio Schillaci.

The role of Minister Schillaci

In fact, the Italian newspaper allegedly found duplicate images in eight articles published between 2018 and 2022, the authors of which also included the current minister, who at the time was working at the Faculty of Medicine of Tor Vergata University in Rome. In four of them, Schillaci is the “corresponding author,” that is, “the most experienced researcher responsible for presenting the research externally,” he says. Andrea Crisanti, a Democratic senator, speaks out in a Facebook post about the case. the story Science has also addressed it – which repeatedly addressed scientific misconduct – confirming the manipulations mentioned in the statement.

Easy to manipulate

The production of pseudoscientific images is nothing new, as it is the most common manipulation in the scientific world, the researcher wrote at the time Enrico Pucci (who has dealt with the subject for a long time), in his book “Bad Scientists”: “Due to the simplicity of implementation and the possibility of verifying the result, this type of data manipulation, along with text spoofing, has become the most widespread method of fraud: 70% of investigations conducted by the US Bureau of Integrity Research (ORI), in fact, focuses on image manipulation.

So much so that it is not the first time that an issue of scientific misconduct based specifically on image falsification has come to the fore. Recently, for example, science itself gave wide space to an alleged fraud – investigated by the same journal – relating to important research into Alzheimer’s disease (which Aboutpharma has also covered extensively), which underlies the theory according to which beta-amyloid accumulates in the brain. Tissues, known as plaques, are the main cause of the disease.

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How to expose fraud

The anomalies found by Il Manifesto were identified thanks to one of the many programs in circulation today that allow you to instantly recognize any duplicate or modified images or for example copied texts. Cinzia CaporaleCoordinator of the Committee on Ethics and Integrity in Research at Cnr, who was interviewed by AboutPharma on the occasion of the already mentioned story of alleged misconduct in some works related to Alzheimer’s disease, said that “in most cases, through these tools both falsification and plagiarism can be indisputably proven.” Arguably.”

This is because, as Bucci also emphasized, “Surprisingly, manipulations are often rudimentary and range from reusing images already published in another context, to cutting and pasting parts of image A into image B, all the way to creating real images.” “. A collage of many different images. These manipulations leave unambiguous traces, such as the presence of identical areas within the image that should not have them, the presence of the same image in different works or in different parts of the same work, etc.

Investigation by Il Manifesto

This is exactly what was condemned by the statement, which found works in which the same image was presented to show cells coming from different tumors or tissues; Or again there are images that claim to represent cells from different patients that are actually the same image with a change in size.

he is writing Andrea Capucci In Il Manifesto: “The most problematic work concerns a paper published in 2021 in the Journal of Clinical Medicine by the Schillaci group (which declares in the text itself responsible for the supervision, conception, methodology and drafting) in which an image of prostate cancer cells is presented. Except that this image may “It had already been used in another publication in 2019 in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, again with the Minister’s signature, in reference to breast cancer cells. In this case Schillaci was ‘only’ responsible for validating the data and reviewing the text.”

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Intention or distraction?

Although there is no doubt about the repetition of images, it is difficult to understand whether it is intentional or not, as the poster itself also says and confirms. Elizabeth Becka Dutch microbiologist and scientific integrity consultant known for her work exposing image manipulation in scientific publications, was interviewed by Science magazine.

It can be involuntary according to Mike Rosner, President of Image Data Integrity Consulting: “It is possible that the author simply took the wrong file when setting up the palette with figures. But even then, when a group appears to be making such errors frequently, it may indicate that its data management processes may be faulty.

For this reason, according to Beck, whether it was “negligence in tracking each image, or intentionally, because images always adapt to the narrative, this in any case calls into question the accuracy of the other experimental results of this laboratory.” .

For this reason, the expert adds, given that there are so many documents, “the university must investigate.”


Daniele FanelliIn his long list of publications on scientific misconduct, he covered many aspects of the phenomenon in a long article on Aboutpharma: From the dimensions, to the motivations, to the weight of any retreats from science.

From his point of view in this case, “it is absolutely necessary to form an independent committee to analyze the issue.”

He specifies: “What should happen in any respectable scientific institution is for an independent committee without conflicts of interest to investigate and then issue corrections or sanctions if necessary.”

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We don’t need a law

However, we do not need a specific law against fraud, as Senator Elena Cattaneo also told our newspaper, but rather “regulation at least at the European level, in order to provide a unified legal standard for the scientific community.”

Fanelli also agrees, stating in this regard that “you can’t make up your mind about science.”

“Instead, it would be helpful to have national regulations, reference documents and independent institutional bodies that could examine any problematic cases, so that they could be reported confidentially, as happens in other countries such as the UK or the US.”

Incompatible activities?

While we wait to understand what the verdict in the Schillaci case will be, the fact remains in Science’s opinion that this incident raises the question of whether the position of university rector – or minister – is compatible with highly productive experimental activity.

In fact, Schillaci is a “prolific author,” as he reconstructs science, “with more than 400 articles registered in Scopus, a database of scientific literature. In the years when duplicate articles were published, he produced one every 12 days, and has continued to publish “Since he became minister in 2022.”

The conclusion according to Beck is that “you can’t do two jobs and do them well together.”

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