Is it game over for a cartoon of Trump’s face in baboon feces? A journal issues an editor’s note for “unusual aspects”


If you’ve been anywhere near Twitter this week, you have probably seen a paper from Scientific Reports that appears to contain a likeness of a certain U.S. president in a cartoon of baboon feces.

It was “one of the greatest scientific Easter eggs in a long time,” according to Jonathan Eisen of the University of California, Davis.

The paper, “Methylation-based enrichment facilitates low-cost, noninvasive genomic scale sequencing of populations from feces,” appeared in Scientific Reports in January of this year. But it went viral this week. At the time of this writing, some 2,700 people had tweeted about it.

On Thursday, we contacted the authors — Kenneth Chiou, of the University of Washington, and Christina Bergey, of Penn State — as well as Springer Nature, which publishes the journal. None has responded.

Yesterday (Friday) however, the paper earned an “Editor’s Note:”

The editors have become aware of unusual aspects to the ‘Extract fecal DNA’ illustration in figure 1. We are investigating, and appropriate editorial action will be taken once the matter is resolved.

We asked Swapnil Hiremath, one of the people who drew our attention to this paper, for his comments:

Like everyone else, I had a chuckle at seeing the zoomed in figure. But as the resident cynical pessimist (or party pooper) the possible unintended consequences quickly became clear. (What were even these authors’ intended consequences, beyond a juvenile prank?) Will journals now need to add a layer of extra diligence to all other papers and figures? A substantial proportion of the general public distrusts scientists, eg on vaccines, climate change and the recent NRA “stay in your lane” issue. Should we as doctors and scientists aim to bridge across the differences with persuasion, or smirk from the sidelines, as this prank does?

Lastly, the Nephrology Social Media Collective Internship faculty developed a code of conduct. We believe we should be responsible and police ourselves, while having fun and doing cool science.’

So how would anyone have seen this before publication? We’ll leave that to Swapnil Bhatia:

Update, 1700 UTC, 12/18/18: A  Scientific Reports spokesperson referred us to the editor’s note, and said:

The Scientific Reports editorial team have been made aware of the image in a section of one panel of figure 1 of this paper and are looking into the issue.

Please see an update on this story.

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15 thoughts on “Is it game over for a cartoon of Trump’s face in baboon feces? A journal issues an editor’s note for “unusual aspects””

  1. Church leaders aren’t allowed to make political statements endorsing/denigrating a candidate if they wish to keep their tax-exempt status.

    Likewise, scientists shouldn’t be able to keep their government funding if they make political statements such as this in their science. (Assuming that it was the authors who inserted this image and it didn’t somehow happen during copyediting, etc.)

    The federal government should not be paying for scientists to promote political points of view in their scientific work.

    1. While I partially agree with Bobo that science should be above politics, I would like to make a couple of comments…
      – Scientists are also human beings that are deeply affected by the current political (anti-science) climate of the current administration.
      – Since when are church leaders above endorsing political candidates? (look at the recurrent endorsement of Evangelicals for (mostly) Republican candidates and office holders; even though some of these candidates/office holders clearly and provably committed repeatedly immoral acts)

      Lastly, the likeness in the figure may have been unintentional. I would give the journal and the authors the benefit of a doubt. Humans have a tendency to see patterns where there are none – the technical term is Apophenia – see:
      One just needs to see at conspiracy theorists that repeatedly see artifacts in pictures from Mars.

      1. Evangelicals violate the law because the IRS doesn’t inforce what is commonly known as the Johnson Amendment. Over the past thirty years, I know of only two churches who have lost their 501c3 status. It just doesn’t happen, and, worse yet, President Trump wants to do away with the Johnson Amendment. Smart move on his part since 81% of voting white Evangelicals voted for him.

        Personally, I’d like to see churches have the freedom to endorse and financially support candidates. The price for this freedom? How about requiring churches to pay taxes as other businesses do? 😀 As long as American taxpayers subsidize religion through the tax code, the Johnson Amendment should be strictly enforced.

      1. You are correct. That said, I’ve heard firsthand countless candidate endorsements made by Evangelical pastors from the pulpits of their churches. I was an Evangelical pastor for 25 years. I endorsed numerous Republican candidates — GOP = God’s Only Party. 😀 I never feared losing our tax exempt status. As long as the IRS ignores the law, Evangelicals will continue to endorse candidates from their church pulpits. (And to be fair, this behavior happens in some liberal/progressive Christian churches too.)

      2. What’s your point.

        The political statement was made here in a government-sponsored scientific publication. I.e., in the scientists’ official capacity.

      1. So what? Pastors pay taxes just like scientists do, and universities don’t pay taxes for the same reason that churches don’t.

    2. But who gets to draw the line on what is or is not a “political statement” in science? Should scientists lose funding for publishing about climate change simply because it’s denial has become a partisan position? If a public figure displays the moral character of baboon feces for decades, does his entry into politics suddenly make acknowledgement of the fact forbidden?

  2. Looks more to me like Che Guevara looking at Carl Marx. I can’t make out the shadowy figure behind Marx. Is that the Lion King in the second bump from the right?

  3. Think about the outrage if Obamas face would be pictured in a monkey feces.

    Keep these sick political attacks away from the science.

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