Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

PLOS ONE retracting paper that cites “the Creator”

with 18 comments

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.50.25 AMPLOS ONE has retracted a paper published one month ago after readers began criticizing it for mentioning “the Creator.”

The article “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living” now includes a reader comment from PLOS Staff, noting:

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.

A spokesperson for the publisher also told us there may be more to say soon:

We may have more information later today or tomorrow.

Yesterday, the journal warned something might happen, in another comment:

A number of readers have concerns about sentences in the article that make references to a ‘Creator’. The PLOS ONE editors apologize that this language was not addressed internally or by the Academic Editor during the evaluation of the manuscript. We are looking into the concerns raised about the article with priority and will take steps to correct the published record.

In response to yesterday’s comment, a writer claiming to be one of the authors said they misinterpreted the word “Creator,” and asked to correct — not retract– the paper:

We are sorry for drawing the debates about creationism. 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 realized 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. We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.
We have spent seven months doing the experiments, analysis, and write up. I hope this paper will not be discriminated only because of this misunderstanding of the word. Please could you read the paper before making a decision.

Competing interests declared: I am the author of paper.

We’re sympathetic to linguistic issues, of course, but it’s usually the job of editors or reviewers to manage those.

The paper, about the biomechanics of hands, gives a shout out to “the Creator” as early as the abstract, which contains this sentence:

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.

It pops up again in the introduction and conclusion of the paper:

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.

The unusual language caused a firestorm on Twitter, and many negative comments on the PLOS site, some calling for the paper’s retraction. Some comments from purported PLOS editors said they would resign if the journal didn’t pull the paper.

Update: 3/4/16 9:40 a.m. eastern: Do you agree with the journal’s decision to retract the paper? Take our poll.

Update: 3/5/16 1:41 p.m. eastern: PLOS ONE has released a retraction note for the paper:

Following publication, readers raised concerns about language in the article that makes references to a ‘Creator’, and about the overall rationale and findings of the study.

Upon receiving these concerns, the PLOS ONE editors have carried out an evaluation of the manuscript and the pre-publication process, and they sought further advice on the work from experts in the editorial board. This evaluation confirmed concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review.

Consequently, the PLOS ONE editors consider that the work cannot be relied upon and retract this publication.

The editors apologize to readers for the inappropriate language in the article and the errors during the evaluation process.

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Written by Alison McCook

March 3rd, 2016 at 4:00 pm

Comments
  • Charlie March 3, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    I have been publishing in science journals for 30 years and am currently an editor of a small, regional journal. I have an accepted paper with PLoS right now. My advice to the editors is that they should at least read the paper. This incident is, needless to say, very disturbing.

  • Dave Fernig March 3, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    So it seems as if the storm is the result of non-native english authors, probably autocorrect putting a capital on creator and an editor and reviewers who did not read and do their job.

    We can yell, we can shout that we will never submit a paper to that journal again or work as an editor for them. However, we should remember that there will always be such cases, when you publish 100,000 papers a year – it happens regularly in journals that publish just a handful of papers a year such as Nature et al. Yelling accomplishes nothing, other than making you feel better (no bad thing, of course!).

    This does show the importance of
    (i) post publication peer review.
    (ii) prompt and correct (if this is a language issue the authors should not lose their paper) action by journals.
    (iii) open peer review, so that reviewers are accountable – that would reduce the frequency of manuscript not being read properly and would allow pre publication peer review to be incorporated into post publication peer review.

    • Colleen Mahaney, RN March 3, 2016 at 5:03 pm

      Particularly (iii)! Their is so much pressure to rubber stamp articles so as to not mark yourself as “difficult” and subject your papers to unreasonable scrutiny. Their needs to be a counter mechanism in place to exert equal pressure to provide a comprehensive review.

    • RW watcher March 4, 2016 at 9:48 am

      I don’t see any editor software will automatically capitalize “Creator”, I tried word and it won’t.

  • Dean March 3, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    So the problem showcased here is not that the author was at fault. The problem that came to light is that some PLoS One editors do not read the papers they purport to edit. They don’t even read the abstract. The emperor’s new clothes were on the editors, not the author.

    • terry the censor March 3, 2016 at 9:06 pm

      The authors are at fault; they are responsible for the translation. But there is plenty enough blame to go around (it will likely remain a mystery how no one noticed those passages).

  • stratis ioannou March 3, 2016 at 5:24 pm

    Given that this appears to be an issue of non-English speakers writing in English, rather than retract the article, the journal should clean up the text and allow the work to stand. While removing the CREATOR certainly helps, the reference to “proper design” should also be removed. The notion of design implies that some one saw a need and designed the appendage to meet that need which is not the case in natural selection.

    • Steve March 3, 2016 at 8:22 pm

      The problem is a clear lack of proper peer review. The authors should be invited to submit a rewritten article with the review overseen by a more responsible editor.

  • Arvind Behal March 3, 2016 at 11:58 pm

    If using word Creator is mistake of authors then ignoring this is a big mistake of editor and reviewers. Retraction of an experimental paper when we know how the journal team is at fault, is not a good option. What will be the action on editorial team? What about the money paid for publication? Are we ignoring how it may impact on the authors at their institution?

  • AMW March 4, 2016 at 12:20 am

    Plos One has a series of criteria for publication. The criteria are useful in that they set an objective minimum bar for papers to be published (they also confirm that the paper does not need to have particular ‘impact’)

    The key criterion here seems to be:

    5. The article is presented in an intelligible fashion and is written in standard English.

    Although biomechanics is not my field, on a reasonable depth reading the article is, broadly speaking, unintelligible. And this is NOT simply about English. It is about the fundamental issues of logic and hypothesis testing which are severely lacking. I can’t imagine that anyone could read the paper and conclude otherwise.

    Regarding the idea that ‘the journal should clean up the text’, I don’t think this would solve the issue. The paper would still be unintelligible even if the journal or authors employed a professional science writer. You would have to go back to the authors and say ‘Why did you do what you did?’. It could take years and you would almost certainly end up with nothing at the end of the process.

    You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

    Clearly it would have been better for all concerned if it had been picked up by the editor earlier. Although almost certainly the paper would have ended up in the same form in another journal.

    It’s also worth noting that the authors just don’t seem to have any insight into these basic issues.

    • ML March 4, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      I actually went to read the article and I find it very intelligible. To me, it appears to simply report the results of an experiment without any specific hypothesis test. Not every article must include a hypothesis test to be a valid article. Sometimes the mere generation and description of new data that can inform later theory is interesting enough.

      • AMW March 5, 2016 at 12:49 am

        So what have they described? In terms that a general scientist can understand?

  • Ying March 4, 2016 at 9:50 pm

    ‘Creator’ is another metaphoric name for ‘nature’ in Chinese. That is the other side of the story, which you, and most of the people condemning the paper do not see.

    To put it simply, in the long history of China, there was rarely any period of time that any sort of religion or atheism was considered a sin at all. The Chinese, unlike the European, has never initiated war or ‘crusade’ against any belief system.

    Therefore, unlikely the European, we did not need sacrifices or even science to embrace the idea of ‘religious tolerance’. It has always been a tradition, ingrained in our culture and language. Using ‘Creator’ as a metaphor for ‘Mother Nature’, it is way of saying ‘regardless of what you believe in, you need to see the wonder in this masterpiece’. I can instantly tell that was the authors intended to say, from a native speaker’s perspective, and from someone who has worked in the field of linguistics and neurolinguistics for a little while.

    The point of this incidence, in my opinion, is to open the discussion of ‘how to help people write in good, standard English in the peer review process’, not to ‘push them away from the English publishing world’.

    I do think the authors should apologize, but retracting their paper and condemning them is crude and unnecessary. It has become a bully, not an education.

    Last but not least, I do think the escalation of this whole incident, is partly due to the ignorance of the western world. I do not want to say ‘cultural discrimination’, because most of the people, are not intentional. But I do think that many people have ‘cultural ignorance’.

    Just because you think the word ‘Creator’ definitely has 100% religious connotation, and has perfect correlation with Creationism, the rest of the world must define the word the same way.

    In fact, majority of the Chinese people are atheists. This is EXACTLY the reason that we are not as sensitive as you are to the word ‘Creator’. Because we do NOT fear that Creationism will come back. We never believe it in the first place.。

    I need to say that, this ignorance and verbal condemnation on the internet coerced the editors of Plos One to make their decisions. A lot of people said a lot of hurtful things towards phenomena that they do not even understand.

    • SG March 5, 2016 at 10:05 am

      I think the problem is not this particular paper. The problem is that the prepublication review process of PLOS ONE did not work properly. The editor is responsible for the quality of the paper including proper language in English (as it is published in English) and he/she failed as well as other internal processes that PLOS ONE mentioned.

  • Andre Borges March 6, 2016 at 10:41 am

    Dave Fernig
    So it seems as if the storm is the result of non-native english authors, probably autocorrect putting a capital on creator and an editor and reviewers who did not read and do their job.
    We can yell, we can shout that we will never submit a paper to that journal again or work as an editor for them. However, we should remember that there will always be such cases, when you publish 100,000 papers a year – it happens regularly in journals that publish just a handful of papers a year such as Nature et al. Yelling accomplishes nothing, other than making you feel better (no bad thing, of course!).
    This does show the importance of
    (i) post publication peer review.
    (ii) prompt and correct (if this is a language issue the authors should not lose their paper) action by journals.
    (iii) open peer review, so that reviewers are accountable – that would reduce the frequency of manuscript not being read properly and would allow pre publication peer review to be incorporated into post publication peer review.

    I am a Chinese-English translator who works in the technical field. I speak and read fluent Chinese. I can’t think of how this was mistranslated, as “nature” and “Creator,” with a captial C to boot, are in absolutely no way similar to each other in any way. I conclude their excuse is a transparent, fallacious one.

    -Andre Borges

    • Queenie Chan March 9, 2016 at 12:59 am

      I agree. I am Chinese and there is no reasonable way one can confuse “nature” and “Creator”.

  • Simon Wang March 7, 2016 at 9:13 am

    This paper should be retracted, no doubt. However, the Journal should be blamed and responsible, not the authors.

  • Christos Argyropoulos March 7, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Reading the introduction, in which the authors explicitly say that the “Creator” improves on the effects of evolution, it is nearly certain that the authors are correct.
    The journal should not use the retraction as a scapegoat for the poor reviewing/editorial work.

    Disclaimer: I frequently publish and review for PLOS ONE. In my last paper review I asked the authors to seek professional scientific writing text to improve the prose, flow and vocabulary.

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