Twitter exploded today with the news that a peer-reviewed scientific paper about the human hand credits its design to “the Creator”, and scientists around the world are so furious, they called for an official retraction.
The paper, which mentions a “Creator” several times throughout, was published by the journal PLOS ONE back in January, but went largely unnoticed until James McInerney, a researcher in computational molecular evolution at the University of Manchester in UK, used twitter to call the journal “a joke”.
“PLOS ONE is now a joke. ‘…proper design of the Creator’ absolute joke of a journal,” he tweeted, before explaining that the language in his tweet was so strong because creationism has been a “nuisance” for him for over 20 years.
Others tweeted about how the editing and peer-review processes over at PLOS ONE had obviously failed:
One commenter said himself, his colleagues, and his students would be forced to boycott the journal if the paper remained in publication, while another pointed out that God should be included in the list of authors, if he really was responsible for designing the biochemical characteristics of the hand that the paper had examined.
Within 24 hours of McInerney’s original tweet, an announcement came from journal saying that they had heard the criticisms – some even coming from PLOS ONE’s own editors who had not been involved with this particular paper – and were retracting the article.
“In light of the concerns identified, the PLOS ONE editors have decided to retract the article, the retraction is being processed and will be posted as soon as possible,” they said in a press statement. “We apologise for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of this paper.”
So what the hell just happened here?
The paper, entitled “Biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination in grasping activities of daily living,” was written by a team of researchers led by Cai-Hua Xiong from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China.
Stating that, “It is not understood which biomechanical characteristics are responsible for hand coordination and what specific effect each biomechanical characteristic has,” the team recruited 30 volunteers, asked them to wear special gloves that could track the movements of their hands, and got them to perform a number of physical coordination tasks.
So far, so good, but in describing these characteristics, the researchers included such phrases as, “Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention,” and “[the biomechanical characteristic] is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way”.
Perhaps most damning is the paper’s concluding statement:
“In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodelling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.”
Put simply, it’s incredibly inappropriate to offer up a supernatural entity as an explanation for a biological mechanism in a paper seeking to advance scientific knowledge, no matter what your personal religious beliefs are.
From the authors’ perspective, they say it’s simply a case of English not being their first language, as lead author Ming-Jin Liu explained in the paper’s comments section:
“Our study has no relationship with creationism. English is not our native language. Our understanding of the word Creator was not actually as a native English speaker expected. Now we realised that we had misunderstood the word Creator. What we would like to express is that the biomechanical characteristic of tendious connective architecture between muscles and articulations is a proper design by the NATURE (result of evolution) to perform a multitude of daily grasping tasks.”
The Retraction Watch blog reached out to one of the PLOS ONE editors listed on the paper, Renzhi Han from Ohio State University, and that set the ball rolling for a swift apology and retraction from the journal a few hours ago.
While the whole debacle will hopefully force the team at PLOS ONE to reassess its editorial and peer-review process, we can at least commend them for being so quick to act in this instance.
As Jonathan Eisen, chair of PLOS Biology’s advisory board, told Wired: “Science [the journal] took ages to address blog and social media criticisms of incorrect information because they only respond to formal criticisms. PLOS ONE is responding to social media, which most journals pretend doesn’t even exist.”
We do feel sorry for the paper’s authors, because if it really was just a case of them misunderstanding the meaning of a religiously charged word, that sucks, and should never have been allowed to happen. And, as Andrew David Thaler, a marine scientist and blogger at Southern Fried Science, pointed out, they’re certainly not the only ones with problems in their paper: