21 March 2014

Maybe these graphical abstracts could be a little less graphic

Currently blowing up my twitter feed are responses to two graphical abstracts in the Journal of Proteomics, both published a couple of years ago in 2012. (There is no statute of limitations on poor decisions.)

First, we have this abstract to the paper, “Harry Belafonte and the secret proteome of coconut milk”:

Here is your coconut woman, as perhaps envisioned by Harry Belafonte. For its proteome, though, have a look at the report inside!

Additional: Joshua Drew seems to have found the source of this image: a list of “sexiest bartenders” (#79) with source text removed.

Later that year, we have this abstract to the paper, “Assessment of the floral origin of honey via proteomic tools”:

Honey, sweet honey? Chestnut, acacia, sunflower, eucalyptus, orange, you name it. Just the same. Eat any of them, you will be savouring animal, not plant proteins!

Um. Er. I think the word “inappropriate” is overused, I can’t find a better one here. Those are inappropriate.

I went looking through the graphic abstracts in the journal since then. I saw no other examples of similar pictures with a quick skim.

There is a common denominator to both papers besides the style of the graphical abstracts. The author for correspondence on both is , who is on the journal’s editorial board (thanks to Ted Morrow for spotting that). Alfonsina D'Amato is also listed as an author on both paper, but that Righetti sits on the editorial board of the journal makes his involvement more noteable.

Rajini Rao reached out to Dr. Righetti about the first of these graphical abstracts, and got this response:

Hello Prof. Rao,

I wonder if you have been trained in the Vatican. As you claim to be a professor of Physiology, let me alert you that this image is physiology at its best!

Take care,
Prof. Dr. Pier Giorgio Righetti

Okay then. Filed under “dismissive.”

Bug G. Membracid, a.k.a. Bug Girl, quickly spotted that the image in the second paper was taken from this music website and modified:

Bug has emailed to see if permission was given to use this. Photographer Alex Wild noted that this might be the thing that lands the authors in trouble, if the photographer did not give permission for this image to be used. The musicians in the image might have less power than the photographer in this case.

This is clearly going to be an evolving story, so I expect to update this post a few times. For one, Hysell Oviedo has asked Elsevier representative Tom Reller for a response. He just tweeted:

We're addressing this right now.

Hat tip to several people who alerted me of these papers: Michael Hawkes, Hysell Oviedo, Karl Broman, and Jon Tennant. Apologies to those I missed who brought this to attention. (Update: It seems TOC ROFL Tumblr, Jillian Buriak, Jonathan Eisen played a lead in bringing this to attention.)

Additional: Amidst Science beat me to finding additional graphic abstracts from the Righetti lab. First, we have here (Journal of Proteomics again, “Cibacron Blue and proteomics: The mystery of the platoon missing in action”). (Update: Tom Reller says this one will also be removed.)

Yves Klein made it to the Olympus of modern artists with Cibacron Blue in his glamorous Blue Venus, whereas we scientists made a “blue fiasco”. Yet, redemption is sculptured inside!

Showing this wasn’t confined to one journal, we have Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Proteins and Proteomics, where Righetti is not editor (whether he was back in 2011 when this was published, I don’t know):

More additional: Tom Reller says the graphical abstracts are bring removed.

Even more additional: Righetti’s unconventional use of graphical abstracts is not limited to pictures of women. Journal of Proteomics, again, “Popeye strikes again: The deep proteome of spinach leaves”:

Popeye kept gulping down large amounts of spinaches to become the first iron-man of America, not knowing that spinach leaves would comprise not less than 322 proteins as listed therein.

At least this one has a guy.

Still at Journal of Proteomics, this baffling one, from “Cheek-to-cheek” urinary proteome profiling via combinatorial peptide ligand libraries: A novel, unexpected elution system”:

Perhaps the winner of the EuroKUP contest, as set up by A. Vlau in Athens (modern Olympic games?), but read the paper and cast your vote!

This one (from here, “Identification of olive (Olea europaea) seed and pulp proteins by nLC-MS/MS via combinatorial peptide ligand libraries”) is a benign image, but the caption is strange:

The sacred fruit to Athena here reveals its secret proteome: 61 proteins in the stone and 231 unique gene products in the pulp. Will this save Greece from default?

More weirdness in Journal of Proteomics, “Poppea's bath liquor: The secret proteome of she-donkey's milk”:

Two Buridan's asses between two hay stacks, unable to decide, died of starvation. She-donkeys are not so dumb, as their milk is nutritious, hypoallergenic, with cosmetic properties (ask Poppea).

And when you get to the paper, “Ginger Rogers? No, Ginger Ale and its invisible proteome,” the inevitable conclusion is that Righetti does not take graphical abstracts seriously.

Ginger Ale or Ginger Rogers? Even though we might be going against our findings reported inside, we confess that we much prefer the latter! Chapeau to her, in fact “Top Hat” to the fabulous duo Ginger and Fred.

Easy humour from a paper on vinegar:

Now, as you use vinegar as condiment for your tossed salad, you cannot ignore any longer its proteome!

Can you guess the topic of the paper featuring this graphical abstract? If you said, “recent progresses in the technique of combinatorial peptide ligand libraries,” you’re today’s lucky psychic!

A humble tribute to a literary genius. Mark Twain was involved in sounding the (shallow) waters of the Mississippi River, we in sounding the low-abundance proteome. The journey continues.

How about this one?

As the snake in the Visconti's family coat of arms gave birth to a soldier, so we resurrected its venom buried for a quarter of a century in polyacrylamide gels.

This one might fit the article, on the proteome of a drink:

A century ago the absinth, much beloved by French impressionists, was banned as a poison. Fear not! The Braulio aperitif will titillate your soft palate with its aroma-enhancing proteome.

This one actually seems like an interesting paper: about the analysis of a bible that may have been on the Silk Road. So this image, while kind of appropriate, is not scientifically helpful.

You do not have to break your back on a camel back on a two-year journey on the Silk Road to reach Khan Baliq and meet Khubilai Khan. Just read this wondrous story inside!

Yet more additional: The Journal of Proteomics editor, Juan Calvete, grabs a shovel and starts digging deeper.

Dear colleague,

Thanks for kindly letting me know that a graphical abstract published in Journal of Proteomics is getting unwelcome publicity. Although I, personally, so not think that the alluded images are sexist (as well as I would not consider it sexist if a man were represented), at least this was neither the intention of the authors nor of the editor, I cn (sic) agree that this kind of images may be inappropriate for illustrating a scientific paper, and consequently have asked our journal manager to remove them. If anyone has been offended, officially apologize for that, and I hope to give settle the case as soon as possible to devote to the lab which is what take take me up most of the day.


If someone calls your images sexist, and you agree to take them down, you are not helping your case if you say, “But I didn’t think they were sexist.”

Still more additional: Cackle of Rad has a flowchart:

Many people seem to think the woman picture is wearing coconut-based clothing. No. She is holding two drinks contained in coconuts. This is a bit clearer in the original picture.

Additional keeps coming: Danielle Lee reacts.

Additional digging: The editor continues commenting on the Lab and Field blog.

More parody: Alex Wild picks up on Twitter’s redubbing of Journal of Proteomics:

Jeremy Yoder points to the Journal of Proteomics guidelines for graphical abstracts (my emphasis).

A Graphical abstract is mandatory for this journal. It should summarize the contents of the article in a concise, pictorial form designed to capture the attention of a wide readership online. Authors must provide images that clearly represent the work described in the article. 

These captured the attention of readers, all right.... but these didn’t even meet the journal’s own technical specifications. It asks for images that are at least 531 × 1328 pixels. None of the contentious images above come even close to 1,000 pixels in size.

Award-winning additional: Sarcastic F notes Righetti won a substantial award, the first Beckman Award, in 2012. Author Frantisek Svec specifically singles out the paper featured at the top of the post with the worst graphical abstract:

During his scientific career, he published over 750 papers, many of them with very catchy titles. For example, his recent papers in the Journal of Proteomics are entitled “Harry Belafonte and the secret of proteome in coconut milk” and “‘Cheek-to-cheek’ urinary proteome profiling via combinatorial peptide ligand libraries: A novel, unexpected elution system”. Wouldn’t you open a paper with such a title right away? No wonder that papers with these titles are widely referred and led to almost 20 000 citations.

You may now proceed to chew on how that sort of scientific clout affects the willingness of others to point out, “That may not be a good idea.”

Update, 24 March 2014: The three papers are now available on ScienceDirect again, minus the graphical abstracts. Dr. Righetti is no longer listed as being a member of the Journal of Proteomics editorial board.

External links

is Sexxing up your scientific journal OK? The Journal of Proteomics seems to think so
Your daily dose of sexism (again) and #ProteomicsSexism
Journal of Proteomics, what the...?!?!?!?!?
Reason #140 Why Sexist Bullshit in Academia is Not Okay
Not how I wanted to spend spring break
Journal of Proteomics Gets Weird
Sexism charge hits proteomic journal — and you’ll see why
This doesn’t belong in science. At all.
Not cool, professore.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul said...

The move by the publisher to remove the images is puzzling -- I was under the impression that we can't modify published works? Are the publishers breaking their own rules in this case?

Heck, this is still online, just with a bit of a disclaimer that it was retracted: doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0

I once noticed a rather significant typo in a paper after it came out online, and asked to fix the typo, and got the following response from the formatting contractor for Springer:

"Once an article has been approved and published for online first, it is considered to be a legally published article and NO further changes can ever be made to it."

I'd love to have it explained to me why online content can be modified in this case. Otherwise, it comes off looking like the publisher is willing to modify content when it suits them (but not when it suits the authors of their content).

Zen Faulkes said...

Paul: Looking at some of Elsevier’s papers, the graphical abstracts are not part of the typeset PDF. Presumably, that is the official version of record. So removing them does not affect the content of the paper.

Juan Calvete said...

Dear Zen Faulkes,
First, let me say that I don't "have a case", I have an opinion; a personal opinion... However, since the (unwelcome) publicity in certain social media may damage the reputation of J. Proteomics as a scientific journal, and Elsevier as a publisher, I took the decision to ask Journal Manager to remove the "offending images" from the Journal's website.
This does not change my belief that "sexism" is an attitude, not an isolated image. Is it a manifestation of sexism or artwork the painting "L'Origine du Monde" (Gustave Courbet,1866) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L'Origine_du_monde) hanging on the walls of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris? and what about "La maja desnuda" (The Nude Maja; 1797) by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes; or "A Nude Boy on a Beach" (Tate Gallery, London) by American painter John Singer Sargent (1878) (http://www.jssgallery.org/Paintings/A_Nude_Boy_on_a_Beach.htm)?, and the nude David of Michelangelo?, and, and, and...
"What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?" (Michelangelo).
Only short of mind confuse their believes with absolute truth.
Those who criticize the usage of the Graphical Abstract illustrating the paper “Harry Belafonte and the secret proteome of coconut milk” may not have had the opportunity to read this article and therefore may not appreciate that the picture refers to the "Cocoanut Woman", a famous song of Harry Belafonte (a great singer and a staunch defender of civil rights and democracy) in his 1957' album Belafonte Sings to the Caribbean (RCA Victor (LPM-1505). The song was dedicated to a poor lady going to the market every day trying to sell her coconuts to the tune of:
“Get you coconut water (Four for five!)
man, it's good for your daughter (Four for five!)
Coco got a lot of iron (Four for five!)
make you strong like a lion (Four for five!).
Enjoy it addressing https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLD46B959887A3D2F2).

Zen Faulkes said...

Dr. Calvete, I genuinely appreciate that you are engaging with the research community by responding to blog posts like mine.

I do see that your response was largely similar to that posted on Dr. Isis's blog. As such, your response here seems to be more concerned with the general controversy and does not address some of the points in my post.

“(S)ince the (unwelcome) publicity in certain social media may damage the reputation of J. Proteomics as a scientific journal, and Elsevier as a publisher,”

Your own reputation, and that of your colleague Dr. Righetti, may suffer more than the journal’s. Both of you could have responded to the criticisms with more tact. You have done so better than Dr. Righetti, I think.

“I took the decision to ask Journal Manager to remove the ‘offending images’ from the Journal's website.”

I thank you for the speed in making the decision and carrying it out.

I also see that Dr. Righetti is no longer listed on the editorial board of J. Proteomics on the website. Was this also a response to the reaction over his graphical abstracts?

“This does not change my belief that ‘sexism’ is an attitude, not an isolated image.”

This is why it is noteworthy that there were multiple inappropriate images in the Journal of Proteomics, not just one. One is happenstance; three and more times suggests an attitude.

When I say “inappropriate,” I am not just referring to the three removed graphical abstracts that featured women. I am also talking about the others that do not meet the journal’s guidelines for publication in explaining the science, and that are often uncredited images from other sources, which may violate copyright. While I am pleased that you’ve acknowledged the issues of sexism in those images, I haven’t read anything where you’ve discussed the other issues with those graphical abstracts.

“Those who criticize the usage of the Graphical Abstract illustrating the paper ‘Harry Belafonte and the secret proteome of coconut milk’ may not have had the opportunity to read this article and therefore may not appreciate that the picture refers to the ‘Cocoanut Woman’(.)”

I understood the reference and the connection of the graphical abstract to the title. Explaining a joke doesn’t make it funnier.

EliRabett said...

Hmm, maybe we need pictures of these clowns coconuts in front of some nude guys?

Ed's lab Conference Blogs said...

Juan Calvete's response astonishes me. Just say "Sorry we offended anyone, we didn't mean to." and remove the image, even if you don't understand why it might offend people. Don't patronise the scientific community by comparing pasting titillating photos on scientific papers with Michelangelo or Goya.
Context is everything. In my opinion there is nothing particularly wrong (or even sexist) with the photos themselves, what makes it wrong and sexist is pairing them with serious science in a journal as an abstract. It's not even funny, in a puerile way, because the photo is so distant from the subject matter of the paper.

I suspect some (not all) academics in Italy are chuckling and saying the Americans are prudish. Firstly, I'm British. Secondly, sexism is a real problem in Italian science, and I know this by speaking to Italian scientists. My excellent PhD student, from Italy, as an undergraduate, asked Il Professore for career advice, to be told in no uncertain terms that science is no career for a woman, she should go and get married. And this was maybe 5 years ago, not 105 years ago.

No wonder there is an exodus of highly trained excellent Italians. Not until it changes at the top will they come back, I suspect.