Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Hands are the “proper design by the Creator,” PLOS ONE paper suggests

with 52 comments

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.50.25 AMA paper about the biomechanics of human hands published last month in PLOS ONE is raising some questions on Twitter, after readers stumbled upon some curious language in the abstract:

The explicit functional link indicates that the biomechanical characteristic of tendinous connective architecture between muscles and articulations is the proper design by the Creator to perform a multitude of daily tasks in a comfortable way.

Yeah, that’s right — “the Creator.” You don’t see such language all that often in academic papers.

Not surprisingly, it’s prompted some harsh reactions from readers:

The Creator makes another appearance in the introduction of the paper:

The human hand adopts coordinated movements to reduce the number of independent DOFs and simplify the complexity of the control problem. Thus, hand coordination affords humans the ability to flexibly and comfortably control the complex structure to perform numerous tasks. Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.

And in the conclusion:

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 remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.

Our biggest question is: Did this language appear in the originally submitted manuscript — in other words, did it pass peer review? We’ve contacted the journal to try to find out.

So far, we’ve heard from the editor listed on the paper, Renzhi Han at The Ohio State University, who implies the language was a mistake:

I am sorry for this has happened. I am contacting PLoS one to see whether we can fix the issue.

A spokesperson for PLOS also told us:

PLOS has just been made aware of this issue and we are looking into it in depth. Our internal editors are reviewing the manuscript and will decide what course of action to take. PLOS’ publishing team is also assessing its processes.

The corresponding author is listed as Cai-Hua Xiong, based at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China.

Update 3/5/16 1:43 p.m. eastern: The paper has now been retracted.

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Written by Alison McCook

March 2nd, 2016 at 12:45 pm

  • Charlie March 2, 2016 at 1:28 pm

    Great peer review. I just had a paper accepted by them. Might have to reconsider.

    • Ken March 3, 2016 at 12:16 am

      I’m in the process of reviewing a resubmission for them where one of the previous reviewers asked not to review again. The paper is rubbish, and I would have finished my review except that I have another very large review.

      I think one of the problems with peer review is the huge number of papers and the lack of time that people have. I’ve had one of my own papers reviewed in I suspect 10 minutes by someone who took the easy way out and rejected. Interestingly the other reviewer found nothing wrong. Both missed some things that should have been fixed.

  • Corkie March 2, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Where has tolerance and respect for the beliefs and opinions of others gone? One doesn’t need to agree, but bringing in a different idea in a civil manner seems more appropriate for an academic discussion.

    • ryder March 2, 2016 at 2:56 pm

      hear hear!

    • terry the censor March 2, 2016 at 3:26 pm

      Corkie, what if the paper had said “extraterrestrials” or “Baal” instead of “the Creator”?

      • Helena Constantine March 2, 2016 at 10:45 pm

        I’d be all for it if it had said Baal.

    • FM March 2, 2016 at 5:54 pm

      Scientific papers aren’t about beliefs and opinions, especially not those about religion. A scientific paper needs to have a highly logical structure in which every statement you make has either been validated before (through experiments) or you have new experimental proof validating it. Of course you can hypothesize and speculate but you have to explain what’s the reasoning behind this. I don’t know why I’m even writing this, it should be stupidly obvious to a person reading articles on retraction watch.
      If peer reviewers were tolerant for the sake of protecting other people’s emotions we would have a ton of garbage being published every day.

      • SG March 3, 2016 at 9:05 am

        Yeah, they should be. But, there is so much crap published, where statistics and methods are wrong. That should be more of our concern.
        Intro and discussion usually contain some amount of opinion. There is rarely a paper without it. Usually you only get criticized for that if it doesn’t fit the reviewer’s own beliefs.

    • Kurage March 2, 2016 at 6:39 pm

      Academic? Really? Sorry, but this is Science, or should be. Ask to an orthodox priest if he wants me explaining the shortcomings of creationism in a mess. So, put some science in that, not untestable beliefs, and so we can accept any discussion you want.

    • Dean March 2, 2016 at 9:02 pm

      No, supporting one’s claims with facts is what’s appropriate in an academic discussion.

    • Torbjörn Larsson March 3, 2016 at 11:41 am

      This is Science 101 stuff, science works precisely because it is *not* respecting the beliefs and opinions of others, or even the authors. It is nature that is the deal maker.

      If we can avoid special pleading and start to give astrologists and homeopaths their due respect, which seems to be none, this plea would be a bit stronger…

      Especially on superstitions like magic, it seems difficult to introduce something that is known since 200 years to break thermodynamics (and later quantum mechanics, and on). Been there, tested that.

    • Armel Nicolas March 4, 2016 at 5:48 am

      Arguing for the existence of God is fine, as long as you have good evidence. I would be highly suspicious of any claims that the “design” of human hands can be scientifically argued to be due to a creator, especially since we know its evolutionary relationship to paws, feet, etc… and have plenty of intermediate forms. No, it’s not about respect for people’s belief, it’s about science.

  • yurii chinenov March 2, 2016 at 1:51 pm

    it takes rather special kind of arrogance to claim that YOUR study confirms that something is a proper design by the creator

    • Turingsbrain March 2, 2016 at 6:39 pm

      Good one!

  • Slartibartfast March 2, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    Never mind the ‘Creator’ bit – that may have been an error of translation, and let the neo-Whorfians have a field day with this.

    What I can’t understand is how this paper got accepted for publication in the first place, given its banality – here’s a representative quote:

    “The neurological functions are controlled by the central nervous system (CNS) [8]. The CNS receives sensory information, such as smells, tastes, sounds, sights and tactile information, and responds to the information with an action …” (Not that it gets any better after that.)

    This is K12-level stuff, if that.

  • terry the censor March 2, 2016 at 2:42 pm

    That is hilarious.

  • Ferrel Christensen March 2, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    This would also explain the bad engineering that resulted in humans’ “blind spot” and capacity to asphyxiate on food, along with a zillion other design blunders in nature. This is called the theological “Argument from poor design”.

    • RW watcher March 2, 2016 at 5:00 pm

      It is not a bug it is a feature

  • Labrat March 2, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    I am betting someone used Google Translator and not to their advantage.

    • Oliver C. Schultheiss March 2, 2016 at 3:42 pm

      Are you suggesting that the Chinese original featured Chairman Mao instead?

  • Anne Cooper March 2, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    Does it matter? Does it detract from the information in the paper? No. Get a grip. (So to speak).

    • terry the censor March 2, 2016 at 3:46 pm

      Anne, are you saying that biomechanical “proof” of the existence of God is an insignificant finding?

    • Torbjörn Larsson March 3, 2016 at 11:45 am

      Of course it detracts, as long as it poses as ‘information’ and ‘science’, same as inserting astrology into astronomy or homeopathy into medicine would.

  • Steven McKinney March 2, 2016 at 4:27 pm

    “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 remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.”

    So how do I read this

    – that the Creator designed a proper hand millions of years ago, and evolutionary remodeling then happened? How then was the design proper? We should have seen no evolutionary remodeling over millions of years for so proper a design.

    – that the Creator watched the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand and deemed it poor indeed, and just stepped in recently to make the design proper? How recently? What remodeling was done to finalize this proper design?

    Octopi everywhere will be disappointed to learn that their dextrous performance of opening jars and other complex tasks with their sucker-covered limbs is being accomplished with improperly designed appendages.

    • Jowens102 March 3, 2016 at 1:18 am

      Ha. Perfect reply. I also can’t help but feel bad for all the poor birds, flapping about with their improper hands.

    • David O'Gorman March 3, 2016 at 9:41 am

      OK, that get my vote for the funniest response, hilarious!

  • Dave Fernig March 2, 2016 at 4:40 pm

    This may or may not be the result of translation and autocorrect capitalising ‘Creator’. What it demonstrates unequivocally is that peer review is not infallible. It never has been and never will. The thousands of papers with comments at PubPeer provide ample demonstration that this is the case.
    The conclusions I draw are:
    First post publication peer review is integral to science and without it there is no science.
    Second, just as prepublication peer review is acted on, so should post publication peer review.
    Third, Open Review may make reviewers more accountable – at the least we can see how we missed obvious problems in a manuscript and do better next time.

  • David Walker March 2, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    I half-humorously mentioned to a doctor once that the urethral tube should have gone around, not through, the male prostate, and that it was poor design. (I did not say designed by who or whom). He lambasted me for daring to criticize God’s design. I did not see that doctor again.

  • Dean March 2, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    Why are the journal’s editors named editors, if they did not at least read the manuscript before publishing it? NOW they’re looking into it? What a joke. The time to read it was BEFORE acceptance, not now.

  • Ben March 2, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    For those who are questioning if this could be translation error, one of the authors has responded to comments on the paper stating:
    “Thanks for your comments.
    As we know, human hand is an amazing instrument that can perform a multitude of functions, such as the power grasp and precision grasp of a vast array of objects, with ease and an absence of effort. Although expended great attempts by scientists and engineers, there is no artificial hand matching the amazing capacity of human hand. The origins of human hand remain unclear. It is too miraculous to let us think that human hand is the masterwork of Creator and indicates the mystery of nature. The further discussion about the Creator is indeed out of place in our article.
    We have noticed the problems of the inaccurate measurement by CyberGlove. The primary neighboring influence of the reading occurs in the abduction/adduction sensors. The problem does not affect our work to a great extent. In our work, we only measure the abduction-adduction movement of thumb and the correlated relationship about abduction-adduction movement is also neglected because the measured joint angle is not the real angular value of CMC joint of thumb, which is a non-orthogonal and non-intersecting compound joint.”

    PLOS should now publish the comments of the reviewers and the Academic Editor to show whether a proper peer review process actually occurred in this case.

  • John Prescott March 2, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    Reviewer 3:
    I think this is an original and useful contribution to theological debate. However, I find all the technical material on hand biomechanics a little unnecessary – perhaps these data can be provided as supplementary files. On the other hand (!), the authors need to add more detail regarding the creator, including some early references. The reader will want to know about which version of the creator is being credited, and outline the various assumptions (monotheism, polytheism, etc) being made. Alternative views – see Darwin, for example – should because be covered in the Discussion.

    • Thor Friis March 16, 2016 at 12:07 am

      Prescott, that’s Gold!

  • HG March 3, 2016 at 12:06 am

    Anyone that has had the painful condition of stenosing tenosynovitis (aka trigger finger) and the surgery needed to correct it can attest to the sub-optimal “design” of the human hand.

  • Noah Tahl March 3, 2016 at 12:30 pm

    This paper should be no Comfort to anyone. The human hand is still perfectly suited to holding a banana, while all the ancestral monkeys have died out because they could not perfect hold bananas!

  • a reader March 3, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    I am going on a limb here and suggest that this post will generate the most comments ever and bring a multitude of life forms out of the woodwork.

  • Hugues Sicotte March 3, 2016 at 1:17 pm

    My problem is not with the mention of “the creator”, I think it is possible to do it appropriately (whatever your beliefs).
    The two problems are 1) the lack of a citation.. and the acknowledgement that’s it’s only one of the possible hypotheses. So he should have been citing the bible and Darwin (for the alternate hypothesis). 2) The thinness of the argument correlating the design theory versus natural evolution.

    Especially for the latter, the paper should be withdraw.

    • Thayza C.A March 5, 2016 at 3:12 pm

      The science is built by axioms. It establishes a presumption and all other things are built from this. Perhaps the biggest problem was the lack of citation … Everything is a copy of the first thing … Creator is not impossible , it’s just unlikely…

  • CW Henderson March 3, 2016 at 2:36 pm

    Although I consider myself an Evolutionary Creationist, I consider the mention of a “Creator” in the Abstract of a journal article to be inappropriate. A mention in the Discussion, perhaps, but the Abstract should be much more objective.

    • Igor Bartish July 19, 2017 at 8:47 am

      An “Evolutionary Creationist”? Hm-m-m… Sounds like “dry water” or “hot ice” to me. The diversity of human perceptions of this world is tremendous indeed!

  • galt March 3, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    The paper has been retracted today!

  • Klaas van Dijk March 3, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    “Follow-up Notification from PLOS Staff, Posted by PLoS_ONE_Group on 03 Mar 2016 at 19:45 GMT

    The PLOS ONE editors have followed up on the concerns raised about this publication. We have completed an evaluation of the history of the submission and received advice from two experts in our editorial board. Our internal review and the advice we have received have confirmed the concerns about the article and revealed that the peer review process did not adequately evaluate several aspects of the work.

    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. We apologize for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of this paper.”

  • Chris Pemberton March 3, 2016 at 3:44 pm

    Was this paper reviewed by Donald Trump?

  • carlos ramirez March 3, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    cant believe this was accepted at first, thank god it was retracted

    • Oliver C. Schultheiss March 4, 2016 at 10:05 am

      No — thank the Creator!

    • mjwieber March 5, 2016 at 12:47 pm


  • Steve March 4, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    So I should burn my copy of Road to Reality by Roger Penrose due to his invocation of a Creator? I suppose it’s more scientific to accept that the space-time manifold just randomly popped into existence rather than viewing it as the construction of an intelligent force. We should just ignore the highly organized initial conditions, and all of the anthropic arguments involving the fine-tuning of our universe? This is why science is always in a fight with religion. Although the opposition to irrational dogma is necessary, why not leave open the arena of reasonable speculation?

    • terry the censor March 4, 2016 at 5:19 pm

      > the fine-tuning of our universe

      Finely tuned to generate circular arguments!

    • Marco March 6, 2016 at 1:30 am

      Saying something is so miraculous there must be intelligence is behind it, is not reasonable speculation. It’s a cop out. It says there is no need for further attempts to understand something.

    • Gary March 7, 2016 at 4:30 am

      I don’t know – was the book published in an scientific journal?

  • Thor Friis March 15, 2016 at 11:59 pm

    I have no doubt that this whole issue is one of being “lost in translation”. My Chinese colleagues tell me that in everyday spoken Chinese “Nature” and “Creator” is interchangeable. However, that this managed to slip the editing process at Plos One doesn’t do much for the credibility of that particular journal and just makes the Hindawi stable of journals look all the better.

    • Thor Friis March 16, 2016 at 12:30 am

      Actually, having perused the article I take it back that this was a translation issue. The sentence: “Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.” gives it away. That sort of nonsense should never have passed peer-review.

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