Keeping up appearances: I’ve been boto(x)-shopped!

It’s remarkable how hard it can be to keep up with the technology needed for success in science. It seems that almost weekly I am being forced to change software programs for manipulating DNA, proteins and so on. Part of it results from computer crashes, changes between PC and Mac, new updates and systems, etc. Other issues are the programs themselves that continue updating and “improving” until they get to the point where I can no longer just sit down and use them to churn out a graph or table.

On the other hand, I am awed by my offspring’s generation, and how rapidly they can adapt to any computer-based technology. My son, simply as a spare-time hobby, has so mastered every function available on the program Adobe Photoshop that I am seriously considering having him come in to the lab on a day off of school to demonstrate to my students and postdocs how to properly make figures in this program. His level of skill is so advanced, that he recently boto(x)-shopped me (see “young and old Steve”):

Old Steve
“Old Steve”

Young Steve
“Young Steve”

Yes, well, I once had fewer wrinkles. But kidding aside, of course this illustrates how easy it might be for someone to get away with scientific fraud. It also raises some interesting questions on ethics at the periphery of science.

For example, would it be ethical to send such a boto(x)-shopped picture in a resume? After all, advertisers and political campaigners do it all the time. Admittedly, at least in the US, photos are not part of a professional resume (nor is age). But hypothetically? I’m sure many of you would say “No!” And I wouldn’t disagree. But then would it be ethical to send a “non-boto(x)-shopped picture” taken 3 years ago? 5 years ago? 10? 15? I suspect that here the line might become blurry.

If we are discussing hypothetical situations and going to extremes, then what about in vivo appearance altering methods, such as hair color to get rid of gray? A wig? Actual plastic surgery? Obviously I’m not implying that these personal methods of keeping up appearances can or should be regulated, but just trying to tie them into the spectrum and point out that perhaps things are not as clear as we might immediately envision. I personally know of a former colleague who began to dye his hair all of the sudden; it turned out later that this was for the purpose of several job interviews. At the time this never would have occurred to me (even now it wouldn’t), but obviously there is at least a perception that appearing older might be detrimental for job interviews.

I suspect that these will be issues that continue to crop up as technology further blurs the line between reality and the impossible. And I will continue to age and prefer that to physical or virtual boto(x)-shopping.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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12 Responses to Keeping up appearances: I’ve been boto(x)-shopped!

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    People attach photos to resumes?!

    Photoshopping such a photo seems like it could very easily backfire, likely the second you walk into the interview…

    I do dye my hair, but less often than I used to. I got my first white hair at 19; knowing the story of my grandfather being completely grey at 30, it freaked me out a lot and I took immediate action! However, so far it’s only the hairs that used to be red that have turned white. The rest are still brown, and I’ve got a bit more used to the white ones. I just wish they wouldn’t stick right out while all the rest curl nicely!

  2. cromercrox says:

    Srsly, those of us at Your Favourite Weekly Professional Science Magazine Beginning With N are enjoined to look VERY CAREFULLY at certain images, such as gels, to see if they are – how can one put this delicately? – too good to be true. There’s a fine line between stoopid and clever legitimate image enhancement and fraud. I don’t see many gels in the papers I handle: for me, I have to be alert to the possibility that this startlingly chimaeric fossil might in fact be a cut-and-shut job. Hey, it happens. I do have an anecdote about how we were very nearly caught out by an outrageous case of photoshoppery, but the margins of this comment are too small to contain it.

    • I had assumed a lot of the bigger journals must be running all photos of gels (or similar outputs) through automatic routines to check for ‘discontinuities of contrast’ etc – basically any feature that would indicated cut ‘n paste, or dicey non-linear contrast enhancement. Don’t they all ask for the original ‘non photo shopped at all’ TIFF images?

      It reminds me a bit of student plagiarism, where we as a Faculty have now (this last several years) taken to making students submit all written work electronically to a central server and running every single piece of it automatically through plagiarism-checking software.

      PS Nice re-touch job by your progeny, BTW. And cheaper than botox, if you keep it in the family…!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Reminds me of my travels in the remarkable Bolivian city of La Pas 20+ years ago. One huge market of a city. Aside from a gazillion other useful, non-essential and downright quirky items and services offered in the streets (including offers to type letters with a typewriter on the sidewalk), multitudes tried to peddle their perfect little “Fossil, Fossil,” showing the specimen as they would pull the two pieces of rock apart…

    • Retraction Watch had what I think was their first palaeontology fraud post a little while ago. The paper described a cheetah fossil that apparently did not stand up to scrutiny:

      “the zygomatic arches of the skull were made from ribs, the incisors were actually premolars from other carnivores, and the posterior part of the skull was simply plastic.”

      You’d think that kind of thing would be slightly easier to spot than photoshopped Western blots…

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    ” But then would it be ethical to send a “non-boto(x)-shopped picture” taken 3 years ago? 5 years ago? 10? 15? I suspect that here the line might become blurry.”

    Actors and musicians (of both sexes) have always done this – just look at a concert or theatre programme and compare with a recent photograph of the same person from the Web.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    That it’s commonly done, I know! Is it ethical? I don’t know.
    It’s a tough call, because an artist can claim that he/she hasn’t updated his/her photo recently. The same way I don’t for my lab website. But even if done with clear intent, is it wrong? Does an artist owe anyone a recent depiction?

    Photoshopping, most would agree, is a different issue. But is adding clarity to the proof always so different from the lighting and focus in the actual photo? Tough call.

  5. I recall thirty-odd years ago visiting the BBC TV studios out in White City in London to meet a friend who worked there, sink a couple in the bar and watch from the gallery while they filmed Top Of The Pops (really).

    On the way through the foyer I spotted a then extremely well-known front man for sports shows. He looked so much older (especially) and smaller than on TV that I only just recognised him.

  6. Getting back to Cath’s initial question – this is very common practice in some Asian countries (Taiwan and Thailand for example). I see CV’s with photos on them fairly frequently.

    I wouldn’t do it, though.

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