Retraction Watch

Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process

Poll: Should “the Creator” paper have been retracted?

with 42 comments

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.50.25 AMThe scientific community has been abuzz the last few days after some readers discovered language mentioning “the Creator” in a PLOS ONE paper about hand biomechanics — hours after which, the journal promptly retracted the paper.

But not everyone agrees with that decision. In one comment thread attached to the paper, a writer claiming to be an author says the language was a translation mistake, and was a reference to Nature, not God — and, as a result, asks the journal to correct (not retract) the paper. Others, such as blogger “dr24hours,” agree.

So what do you think, readers? Should PLOS ONE have retracted “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living?” Take our poll below. 

Update 3/5/16 1:38 p.m. eastern: PLOS ONE has published an official retraction notice for the article:

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 4th, 2016 at 9:33 am

  • marc lippman March 4, 2016 at 9:39 am

    of course this should not have been retracted given the author’s gentle and appropriate explanation. does no one have a sense of humor anymore ??

  • Bashir March 4, 2016 at 9:42 am

    Anyone who has learned a 2nd language knows how easy it is to say something with unexpected connotations. If the authors are not native English speakers (which they say they aren’t), a language error is a plausible explanation. I do not understand why anyone would jump to other conclusions and disregard the statements of the authors themselves. Are they known to produce Intelligent Design publications? Is there something here that I am missing? Are there any errors in the paper that aren’t “Western native English speakers inferred something the authors did not intend”? Again, the authors in a PLoS comment explicitly, and repeatedly state that they did not intend a Creationist interpretation.

    I’m dismayed how quickly this all went, when it seems to likely be a simple failure of editing. A regrettable but understandable error.

  • Robson March 4, 2016 at 9:43 am

    My problem with this paper is quite simple: If the peer-review process couldn’t identify something as alarming (and easy to spot) as this, the whole process may be compromised. I believe that the authors should give another chance to re-submit the paper in plos one and an investigation should be conducted inside the journal to identify how the review process failed so bad.

    • Sharon March 4, 2016 at 10:02 am

      The peer review process appears to have been sloppy. If you insert nature for God it doesn’t quite fit. The sentences do not seem to be ambiguous; if you lifted them and put them into a theological context no one would think the authors meant anything but what was said. Do publications in the authors’ native language intertwine religion and science to the point that the authors believed this was normal and acceptable?

      • Robson March 4, 2016 at 10:53 am

        I’ve read some papers from the corresponding author. All of them seemed normal to me. So not sure what happened. Maybe they hired a professional translator (not necessary a scientist) or something that could have mistaken similar words in their native language.

    • Bryan March 4, 2016 at 10:40 am

      Spot on. Why did the review process fail so horribly.

    • Tim Dean March 6, 2016 at 6:20 pm

      One mistake isn’t evidence the entire process responsible is flawed. In fact, even an optimal process will likely admit some errors to occur. And the fact this is being discussed at all is evidence that the broader scientific process of continual scrutiny, self-reflection and correction is working rather well. It’s when an error occurs and it doesn’t come to light or no debate ensues that the process is more likely to be flawed.

  • Xin Di March 4, 2016 at 9:57 am

    If the authors agree to change “Creator” to “Nature”, it means that the authors don’t believe in creationism. It was an unintended mistake.

    The whole paper is not designed to support the claim of “Creator”. The word “Creator” appears in several occasions, but it has nothing to do with the data and analysis. If “Creator” needs to be corrected, a correction is more appropriate, rather than retracting the whole paper.

    • SG March 4, 2016 at 10:34 am

      That’s not really the case. See what happens when ‘Creator’ is replaced by “Nature”:

      “(Last paragraph) In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Nature for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.”

      As you can see, “Nature” is something else other than “evolutionary remodeling”. It’s like: ‘I drank coffee, and after that I drank coffee’.

      The real problem is not this particular paper. It raises a (rational) doubt on the review process that published other PLOS ONE papers. It depends on PLOS ONE’s next action for rigorous quality assurance whether researchers would continue submitting their works into this possible shit hole.

    • Janos Toth March 4, 2016 at 11:53 am

      What was the original Chinese idiom mistranslated as ‘Creator’? Reading the passages in question make me feel that the author’s argument about the bad translation is not plausible.

  • yurii chinenov March 4, 2016 at 10:00 am

    I am not sure what is worse – the failure of editorial process in Plos one or the retraction that followed. This is not a study about evolution, it is about biomechanics. Language error or not the question one must be asking is whether the mentioning of a creator affects scientific conclusions of the study. If the conclusions remain valid why would you want to retract the study? Basically this whole situation really characterise Plos One as a journal.

  • M. M. Nashrullah March 4, 2016 at 10:02 am

    I think, this paper must be corrected, because this ambiguous words. The paper itself, may still good to reads.

  • Veno March 4, 2016 at 10:32 am

    Why retract a good paper that can simply be corrected?

  • Tony Mitchell March 4, 2016 at 10:33 am

    This may be nothing more than a language problem but I think it is also a cultural problem. How many things are said and done in one country that would be considered unacceptable or inappropriate in another?

    It appears to me that much of the discusion that this paper has generated falls within the boundaries of culture rather than language.

    And for the record, I have a foot in both areas (secular and sectarian).

  • Heidi March 4, 2016 at 10:34 am

    What should be retracted are the editors and reviewers who had this paper in charge…

  • Slartibartfast March 4, 2016 at 10:54 am

    It is a “Curate’s egg” kind of paper. The abstract, introduction, and conclusion are rather horrid, yet the method and results section seem fairly sound. I It would be a pity to lose those. Best to have it revised and republished.

  • Adam Etkin March 4, 2016 at 10:55 am

    I’m curious, didn’t the author actually state very early on in the PLoS comments section for their article that they DID indeed mean “Creator?” If so, why the language explanation now?

  • H. Chinaski March 4, 2016 at 11:01 am

    The editorial staff needs to get out in front of this problem and explain what happened and why their peer reviews failed to catch this. The authors already did and they no longer can be held culpable.

    • Bobo March 4, 2016 at 1:38 pm

      How can the authors not be culpable for something they wrote?

      • yurii chinenov March 4, 2016 at 3:48 pm

        Because the authors did not write it – the translator did.

        • Bobo March 4, 2016 at 8:07 pm

          Doesn’t matter. You still put your name on it. You shouldn’t sign your name on something you don’t understand and can’t vouch for.

  • Adam Etkin March 4, 2016 at 11:03 am

    Here is the quote from the author comment:

    “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.”

    Seems to me they know the difference between “Creator” and “nature” and they even start to walk back their use of the word. Perhaps I’m misreading this, but it seems here they are saying that the human hand if even MORE “miraculous” than God? Would love to hear what others think.

    • practiCal fMRI March 4, 2016 at 1:39 pm

      Clearly they may well know the difference by now, the differentiation of these two words has been beaten over their heads for the past 48 hours. But if you read the actual paper – you did that before commenting, right? – it is clearly not a Creationism argument. If anything it is an attempt at a bit of literary flourish to emphasize the circularity of any evolutionary process: was it exploited because it had the property, or did it evolve the property to solve the problem? This is complicated, sometimes rhetorical language, and it’s generally not done well by those of us who only have one single language to concern ourselves with.

    • B. Z. March 7, 2016 at 9:10 pm

      As a native Chinese speaker, I would say that there is probably some misunderstandings here. There is actually no word for “the Creator” in classical Chinese. The modern words for “the Creator” originated from early translations of the Bible, and they only bear a religious meaning when used in religious contexts. The Chinese society has been mostly secular for thousands of years and most people don’t really understand the connotations of the English word “Creator”. Therefore, it is quite possible that the authors didn’t understand the subtlety of their word choice, as they have explained. I found this website explains the difference of the two languages very well:

  • Jay Powell March 4, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    An On/Off switch cannot represent more than two options. Using it to branch to create limbs on binary trees can simulate certain types of option, but will never effectively produce a third or more options that stand alone.
    Always at issue is what or who caused the “Big Bang?”
    Heisenberg recognized that different experimental procedures can sometimes produced contradictory results. When an either/or proposition becomes a “both … and …”
    Science has not yet penetrated deeply into the linkages between the objective and the subjective to answer the “God” conundrum.
    The apparent dualism in some quantum contexts have not yet been resolved with a clear binary “Yes/No.”
    This particular arguments begs the bigger one “Is there a non-physical second component to Reality?” If so, what is it like and how do we identify its impacts on the world we know?

  • RickA March 4, 2016 at 3:09 pm

    Political correctness run amok.

  • Derick Winkworth March 4, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    It seems abritrary to withdraw the paper. I’ve gotten so used to filtering out the unwarranted far-left activism in so much scholarship, that I would have focused on what they have to say about the hand and filtered out references to “creator.” I’ve seen papers in theoretical math quote Foucalt and Gramsci, and nobody blinks.

  • yurii chinenov March 4, 2016 at 3:47 pm

    I’ve read some papers from the corresponding author. All of them seemed normal to me. So not sure what happened. Maybe they hired a professional translator (not necessary a scientist) or something that could have mistaken similar words in their native language.

    I have to deal a lot with translated manuscripts and I see something like this happening time and again, especially with texts translated from languages with very different structure and grammar. Simple substitution of “creator” by “nature” in the English translation is not particular helpful as a test because we don’t know what was the structure of an original sentence.
    Chinese native speakers can probably correct me on this, but I actually see how “nature’s creation” can be translated as “Creator” by an inexperienced translator who was in a hurry or decided not to consult the authors. I have seen even more interesting mistakes. Obvious Plos One editorial failure aside, may be it is time to put a statement into the text when the manuscript was translated and who performed said translation.

    • Robson March 4, 2016 at 6:07 pm

      exactly my point! that’s why an investigation is needed at least to be fair with the authors and to serve as a lesson for all of us.

  • Steven McKinney March 4, 2016 at 4:07 pm

    I voted “Retract it” because in addition to most inappropriately inserting unnecessary religiosity into a purported scientific article, it is also very poor science, and should never have passed review at PLoS One.

    PLoS One has done a disservice to the authors on this one.

    The article purports to shed light on “a highly complex structure, with 19 articulations, 31 muscles and more than 25 degrees of freedom”, using “thirty asymptomatic subjects (15 males and 15 females, 25 years old on average)”. This can only result in overfitted statistical models yielding a high rate of false positive findings, exactly the sort of problem seen repeatedly in reproducibility studies that we are all trying to reign in.

    Any real understanding of so complex a system will need considerably more subjects. This exploratory data set can be used to run power calculations to show how many subjects would be needed in any serious study attempting to detect effects of some biomechanical or scientifically relevant size.

    At best this study can be republished as an exploratory set of findings, with discussion of meaningful magnitudes of effects measured by the glove device, questions of interest to be further explored, and sample size calculations for any reasonable scientific investigation of those questions.

    • jjpaff March 5, 2016 at 6:29 am

      Sorry Steven, but that you do not like the article is not a reason to retract it. It is kind of you acting as the “creator” deciding what to be published or not, just on the base of your likes or…beliefs.

      • Turingsbrain March 6, 2016 at 6:58 pm

        Steven concerns are not about liking or disliking the article, they are about the objective fact that the statistical analysis of the data was underpowered, i.e. that the findings can not be sound.

  • Kirk Durston March 4, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    As our knowledge advances, I continually see in countless peer reviewed papers, ever more impressive capabilities being assigned to evolution to account for what we are discovering in the cell, to the point where there seems to be little difference between nature/evolution and ‘creator’ as understood by the (presumably) non-theist, Chinese scientists who made the unfortunate mistake of using an english word that is verboten. The literature is rife with design/creator language when describing evolution. Call it ‘evolution’ or ‘creator’, it makes no difference to the substance of the paper. What is more interesting is the gory-eyed fit that so many threw upon seeing the verboten word which shall remain unmentioned. I imagine that philosophers of science will be thinking about how atheistic presuppositions have become de rigueur in evolutionary biology.

  • peer terborg March 4, 2016 at 5:19 pm

    It is really too sad for words that PLoS bows for atheistic pressure to retract marginally interesting papers because the atheists demand so…

    Because that is why they retracted…because of the atheists religion complaining that their taboo word was used.

    Science should be completely free of ideology, atheism included.

    • Veno March 4, 2016 at 7:36 pm

      You are bluntly right!

    • Bobo March 4, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      No, a statement in a scientific article that there is ~no~ god would also be equally out of place.

      Also, it has been said before, but atheism is a religion like “not collecting stamps” is a hobby. Atheism is a religion like “bald” is a hair colour.

    • MadS100tist March 4, 2016 at 11:13 pm

      I have to say that I had to read your comment twice to realize you were not joking. If you state that it ‘should be completely free of ideology’, then religion shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Period. And secondly, it’s not a matter of religion or not, is a matter of facts. The ‘Creator Hypothesis’ cannot be tested, therefore it should be left out of the assumptions.

  • JATdS March 4, 2016 at 9:29 pm

    Will PLOS reimburse the authors? I assume that the APCs were not cheap.

  • Kevin Black March 5, 2016 at 12:17 am

    I think retracting the paper because readers don’t like the mention of a creator is worse than silly, it’s wrong. If the science is bad, fine, reject it. If the data are made up, retract it. If the conclusion that hands are perfectly fit (whether by natural processes or by a creator) overreaches the data (which seems quite likely), then fine, the reviewers and editor should require the authors to tone down the conclusion–before acceptance. But that is absolutely not a reason for forced retraction. The most appropriate response after it was published would have been an editorial and/or “expression of concern.” Probably thousands of journal articles every year include conclusions that overreach their data; sure, that indicates sloppy reviewing and editing, but the usual response after publication is that other authors call it out in letters to the editor or in independent reviews of the topic. An involuntary retraction is an inappropriate overreach of its own. I agree with other commenters here who suspect that the eager, not to say vitriolic, reaction of many readers was primarily motivated by an anti-religious Weltanschauung that is more appropriate to epistemic than to scientific discourse.

  • jjpaff March 5, 2016 at 5:50 am

    In the discussion, the authors state: “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, design of the Creator following the evolutionary remodeling for millions of years? what an oxymoron… It is quite evident that the authors meant NATURE, not Creator.
    The article should be corrrected, not retracted.

  • AMW March 5, 2016 at 10:14 am

    There is no mention of a hypothesis in the paper but if you allow the authors the concluding phrase:

    “the mechanical architecture is the proper design by nature for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years”

    then you have to assume that the null hypothesis was that the mechanical architecture of the hand is not well designed, and the authors are claiming to have gathered evidence that actually the hand really is well designed to do its job (the alternative hypothesis).

    Can anyone actually tell me where is the evidence from this paper that leads the authors to attempt to draw any conclusion at all? Where is the advance compared to an anatomy textbook?

  • Jim L.Sekerak March 5, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    Methinks the protestors doth protest too much”. A simple correction would suffice as there is no need to further fuel the public’s skepticism re. the ‘objectiveness’ of some of the scientific papers being published.

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