Springer Nature to retract chapter on sign language critics call “unbelievably insulting”

Julie Hochgesang

Springer Nature is retracting a book chapter describing conference research after scholars in the deaf community blasted it for being “unbelievably insulting.”

The chapter, “Implementation of Hand Gesture Recognition System To Aid Deaf-Dumb People,” appeared in Advances in Signal and Data Procesing: Select Proceedings of ICSDP 2019. The authors were  Supriya Ghule and Mrunalini Chavaan, of the MIT Academy of Engineering in Pune, India. 

According to the abstract

In recent years, the population of deaf-dumb victims has increased because of birth defects and other issues. Since a deaf and mute person cannot talk with an ordinary person in order that they ought to rely on some kind of communication system. The gesture shows some physical movements of the hand that convey a piece of information. Gesture recognition is the analytical interpretation of the movement of an individual through an information processing system. Linguistic communication provides the most effective conversation platform for the mute person to speak with an ordinary person. The aim of this paper is to build up a time system for hand gesture recognition that acknowledges hand gestures and then converts them into text and voice. In this paper, efforts have been done to detect 8 different gestures. Each gesture has assigned unique sound and text output. In experimental results, 800 samples were taken into the consideration out of which 760 samples were detected correctly and 40 samples were detected wrongly. Hence, the proposed system gives accuracy of 95%.

The work caught the eye of an international group of researchers and members of the deaf community led by Julie A. Hochgesang, of the Department of Linguistics at Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C., who were “appalled” by the project, which they say was marred by a lack of understanding of the field, pejorative and outdated language and other problems. 

In an open letter to the editors of the publication, Hochgesang and her co-signers — numbering well more than 100 — wrote: 

I am a signed language researcher, deaf American Sign Language (ASL) user and linguistics professor at Gallaudet University in Washington DC, USA. I am writing in regard to the dismayed reaction I had to the chapter “Implementation of Hand Gesture Recognition System to Aid Deaf-Dumb People” that you were overseeing as editors. As you can see below, many colleagues expressed mutual dismay at this article, and have contributed to, and co-signed this letter. My colleagues and I represent various deaf signing communities, the signed language research community, deaf pioneers in sign language technologies, and allied fields in computer science, psychology, interpreting, disability services, disability studies, signed language teaching, linguistics, audiology, biomedical science, and mental health, among many others.

We are appalled that this work was allowed to be published. We question the peer review process that enabled such publication. It is clearly and immediately evident that the authors are not working with the relevant signing communities, where they live and research. The technology they are discussing is claiming to solve a communication problem, when in fact it is not. For instance, the dataset described by the authors only contains eight gestures. All of us work with signed languages–the databases we use to support our work, with some examples listed below, contain several thousands of entries, and these thousands of entries do not come close to capturing the full lexicons of our signed languages. Promoting false beliefs that signed languages are not linguistic communication is highly problematic and refuted by historical and current research (see references below).

Hochgesang and her co-signers added that the chapter has “significant ethical issues,” largely involving the lack of collaboration with members of the deaf community and experts in signed language: 

First and foremost, work of this nature must, at a minimum, be done in collaboration with the communities who stand to be most impacted by this work. Better yet, this work should be led by members of these communities. In this case, deaf scholars in the relevant communities must be involved. Second, authors and editors of any paper, in any field, have an obligation to ensure that relevant literature has been consulted. Had you done so in this case, this chapter would have never made it to print given the already-rich literature related to these topics.

As editors, you have a responsibility to ensure that the language and framing used by your authors are appropriate and respectful. Offensive terms like “deaf and dumb” and “deaf-mute” have been outdated for over 50 years and are rejected by the communities the terms attempt to describe. Framing deaf people, a minority group, as “victims” and contrasting them to “ordinary people” is unbelievably insulting. Implying that signed languages are not “linguistic communication” is factually incorrect. This kind of language is unacceptable in an academic publication, violates APA guidelines for disability as outlined here, https://apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language/disability, and offends the deaf signing communities and allies. Deaf people are fully capable of learning to read and write fluently in whatever spoken language is locally used, on top of using their signed languages which are equally as full, complex, nuanced and expressive. 

They conclude:

Ultimately, we call for the immediate retraction of this chapter and the issuance of an apology.

In a January 26 email to Hochesgang, Niels Peter Thomas, Springer’s managing director for books, wrote: 

Thank you for reaching out regarding the chapter Implementation of Hand Gesture Recognition System To Aid Deaf-Dumb People in the book series Advances in Signal and Data Procesing: Select Proceedings of ICSDP 2019, which is a Conference Proceedings. We take these concerns very seriously and have brought the paper to our Research Integrity Group’s attention. We have also contacted the volume editors of this Proceedings and the two authors of this specific paper.

By way of background, the chapter Implementation of Hand Gesture Recognition System To Aid Deaf-Dumb People was submitted to a conference for which Springer has published the proceedings in the book series Advances in Signal and Data Procesing. For publications such as conference proceedings, peer review is the responsibility of the conference review committee who had reviewed this chapter prior to their acceptance. The usage of these specific terms was unintentionally overlooked by the chapter authors and the external reviewers. Please, note that the review process details and conclusions drawn remain confidential between the editors, peer reviewers and authors. 

After a thorough review of all concerns raised regarding ethical research issues and the language used, Springer has decided, in agreement with the volume editors and the two authors, to retract the chapter. This decision was taken upon the request of the volume editors in agreement with the two authors who expressed their regret in publishing the chapter and offering their apologies to the relevant communities. In addition, the authors sent Springer a note where they asked for retraction and offered their sincere apologies for any hurt caused by their unintentional use of outdated, improper and offensive language and for falling short by not working in closer collaboration with the signing communities.

As publishers we fully acknowledge the concerns in your letter. We aim to contribute towards more equitable outcomes in learning and advancing scholarship, building and supporting an inclusive culture, and making a positive difference to disability inclusion.

Thank you for your active interaction with the research we publish.

Ghule has not responded to a request for comment.

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39 thoughts on “Springer Nature to retract chapter on sign language critics call “unbelievably insulting””

  1. OK, note to self, do not design system to help people with disabilities turn sign language into speech. Using the wrong words in a conference abstract will attract cancellation from American colonialists.

    1. Note to self…ignore the concerns of an entire culture spread out across the world (not just America) as well as ignoring all the linguistic and technological studies/advancements in the very field I’m doing “research” in. Refer to said culture by terms considered outdated, insulting, and inaccurate since the 1950s, ignore any input from the very people they are trying to “help”, and also infer that they cannot communicate properly or comprehend local languages properly…
      Do you see the issue here?
      This report failed to collect any relevant data that already existed in this field nor did they reach out to any of the multitude of experts who have studied deaf linguistics as well interpretive technologies. This is a serious failure in and of itself. Then to use such outdated terms and refer to a community as “victims”, in a “scientific” report/chapter of all places, is more than enough justification for retracting this chapter.

      1. In response to “annoymous” and your comment. How about we talk about the hearing colonists like yourself that continue to oppress and support oppression of deaf people all over the world. And whatever “design system” you are referring to is called a language that deaf people have developed for hundreds of years. Just the fact that you say these things shows how clueless you are. How about you educate yourself instead of continuing to promote and engage in oppression. Get on the thing called the internet and look up sign language linguistics. Not hard. And guess what – India has a signed language too! Wow! The fact these authors couldn’t even do that and they call themselves researches at MIT – they should be embarrassed. I am completely disgusted and cannot believe this mindset still exists.

        1. Sure. Honestly, the authors here have probably done more to fight oppression of people with disabilities than I ever have. These authors tried to develop a system to help people who are both deaf and unable to speak to communicate more easily. Their abstract was poorly written. There are probably flaws in their concept and execution. Their system is super preliminary and may not even work. But I suspect they had good intentions and were trying to help. Otherwise why bother?

          When you have 200 people, almost all in wealthy North American and European countries, ganging up on a couple lndians, it just makes the 200 look like the bullies. So go ahead, tell me more about how two Indians are oppressing you.

          1. You think it is just fine to publish harmful research as long as you have “good intentions”? I hope you are not in charge of any patient facing medical programs…

          2. They were doing this clearly because they wanted to make an app/AI system to sell and make money from, and thought they could exploit the Deaf and not include them in this process and make it work. Good intentions have caused many people to be harmed before, so that is not good enough. The fact is Deaf people communicate well, it is hearing people who usually do not know more than one language and a spoken one at that. It is very sad that we do not have everyone learn a local legit signed language in school just like spoken and written ones. That would have long term benefits for everyone, especially those who lose hearing later in life so they could still communicate even when they cannot hear voices anymore.

            Also, India has many educated people and is not like they are sad little nation being bullied. Those who criticized them are literate and Deaf, they communicated so well you must have thought they were hearing people. Do you think the oppressed Deaf who were totally ignored by the hearing scientists making this product to sell to hearing people like yourself would have listened to their own Deaf who use Indian Sign Language? I think they didn’t want complaints, just profits…and that it almost worked, except Deaf outside their nation who had some respect by other scholars since they published scientific journal articles to had enough power to get them to not publish a damaging paper.

            You clearly are not Deaf. And you clearly do not get how this would do harm to Deaf worldwide “with good intentions.”

          3. J.L.S., how is trying to develop assistive technology harmful research? Even David Poland’s most scathing critique is that they might, shock-horror, try to sell their assistive technology to people who are deaf and unable to speak.

          4. Anonymous, you might be interested in reading the entire letter, which can be found here: https://figshare.com/articles/online_resource/Open_Letter_to_Springer_Editors/13600940/1

            The letter cites several articles explaining the problems with sign language recognition technology. You can read these yourself if you are interested in educating yourself about this topic.
            “Do deaf communities actually want sign language gloves?” by Dr. Joseph Hill
            https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-020-0451-7?proof=t

            “Why Sign-Language Gloves Don’t Help Deaf People” by Michael Erard.
            https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/11/why-sign-language-gloves-dont-help-deaf-people/545441/

            Sign Language Translating Devices Are Cool. But Are They Useful? By Emily Matchar.
            https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/sign-language-translators-are-cool-but-are-they-useful-180971535/

          1. This article really disturbs me. When was the term Deaf- Dumb ever acceptable? You call yourselves writers? I cannot believed this article was reviewed. As a writer you need to thoroughly research your subject before falsely writing misinformation. I will take matters in my hand to make sure this will never happen again.

    2. A system designed for victims by ordinary people that has a capability of 8 words? Yeah ok. Ableism is victimizing

  2. An absolutely “pejorative” work since the very beginning: “… Deaf-dumb…” same as this: Minds in Trouble.

  3. Sigh…no it will cause inclusive and knowledgeable experts to rightly request that such drivel be retracted. If the publisher of a book cannot be bothered to ensure factual information, what’s the point?

  4. “First and foremost, work of this nature must, at a minimum, be done in collaboration with the communities who stand to be most impacted by this work. Better yet, this work should be led by members of these communities.”

    Self-righteous western academic elitism on full display right here, which appears to have triggered by a few words that colonialist elites find offensive, but might be fine in the world they live in. If the western academic elites want to trash this in conferences or letters or pubs I say fine, but they should not interfere with the editors decisions to publish this because their feelings were triggered.

    1. To failure at science:

      It seems you are the one triggered. Do you feel like a White Hearing English Supremacist? Because you speak like one.

      It is clear you have never socialized with, studied about, or read a book upon the Deaf Community of ANY nation, and perceive the Deaf as an inferior group. That is the issue with eugenics and hate.

      If you had a belief in God, you would know all are made in His image, and He does not make mistakes…only humans do.

      Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Catholics have done a lot for science for centuries, including the original research of genetics. Genetics for some deaf people make them uniquely capable to do things that typical humans with average hearing cannot do.

      If you are atheist, and you had any grasp on science, you would learn that diversity of all species improves the outcomes for the whole to survive and thrive. Deaf people are born with better vision, which sees almost to behind the head, and thus they are in many tests in the US since the 1920s shown to be a better driver than hearing are. Yet instead of trying to ban hearing from driving eugenicists wanted several times to ban the Deaf in the US from driving, and in some nations are banned. Deaf people often, not always, have a difference in equilibrium, and a positive side of that is not getting motion sickness. NASA used 11 Deaf men from Gallaudet College from the 1950s -60s to experiment on…such as rising and falling airplane test, spinning for days in a moving room test, and out in a stormy sea on a boat test, just to see how they reacted. The hearing people, including the ship crew and the NASA scientists had to cancel and go back to the shore the latter test as the hearing people were throwing up. Deaf people did not throw up or get dizzy. This led to the ability for NASA to send men into space and helped the US beat the USSR in the Space Race.

      Not only are the d/Deaf not inferior, we are whole, the world would not be as well off without us. You do not know it, but Deaf are among many minority groups you need to survive and thrive too.

      I could go on, but you are not worth my time. It clearly proves by your ignorant and Audist reply that our world is full of oppressors ready to keep minorities from succeeding in life, having a right to life even, and be equal.

      I have a hard hill to climb to educate the hearing that people like you are our disability, not our decibels.

  5. Sign language and cochlear implants are available in India. Logistics are challenging, but I do not understand why “Embracing Multiple Normals” or the above-cited paper need to be goals.
    Friedner M, Nagarajan R, Murthy A, Frankfurter R. Embracing Multiple Normals — A 12­-Year­-Old Boy in India with a Cochlear Implant. NEJM 2019; 381:2381-2384.

  6. I would like to say that learning ASL has been eye opening for myself.
    The entire Bible is available in ASL on JW.ORG as well as portions of the Bible in other sign languages.

    1. Another issue the Deaf have are being targeted by cults. Jehovah’s Witnesses create databases with our contact information against our will and created those videos to ensnare those who cannot read English well, and have less ability to understand the complex Bible in print. I know your group and Mormons will not stop, but I post this here to gain ability for others to realize along with eugenics oppressors wanting the Deaf to not have any positions of power such as leadership over the hearing in business or government, Deaf are constantly targeted by scammers and religious cults who want their SSI money. Exploitation is equal to any other oppression.

  7. What an absolutely garbage non-apology. It wasn’t “unintentional use of outdated, improper and offensive language…”

    It was the thoughtless, reckless leading of an entire study without bothering to even understand the language that study is ostensibly about. It was feeling so arrogant about “wanting to help those poor people” that the researchers nor anyone on the review committee stopped to think, even for a moment, that there is a community of Deaf academics, scholars, linguists, and professionals building upon many years of academic inquiry that they absolutely would have encountered if they had bothered to do even a cursory search of the scholarly material available about signed languages.

    It was the self-aggrandizing appropriation of a language meant to build the researchers’ own CVs without even once pausing to consider the communities who created those languages and live with them every day.

    No part of this was unintentional. It was deliberately thoughtless and grounded in a sense of entitlement. It was thinking you knew so much about this language that you clearly didn’t even bother to learn the language or its history.

    Surely someone on your staff knows how to write a real apology.

    1. Jen, I agree with all you said. However, I would suggest they do not think the signing Deaf of the world are worthy of the same level of apology they would give hearing peers. Audism is real. It is a form of racism, where Deaf are seen as an inferior race. By keeping the deaf infants from access to a real visual language, by scientific publications being read worldwide stating deaf are dumb and incapable of communication and need hearing to help them in menial ways, they can assure no future competition with the Deaf adults for power, income, or rights. It is a method to keep deaf children and adults illiterate, ignorant, and dependent. It is a method that has been working for them since the Milan 1880 conference and Alexander Graham Bell’s published rubbish “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.”

  8. See deafmed on Facebook, medical terminology class is required to progress through class and employment in the medical field as a deaf medical professional, but sign language interpreters only take a workshop or a seminar but not the class, preferably serving the deaf patients not the deaf medical professional.

  9. I find it highly ironic and hypocritical that a group of western faculty elites, who are notorious for judging people for their intelligence—you can only become one of them if they (tenured faculty) think you are smart enough—suddenly getting feelings hurt when that judgment is being used by others–however wrongly—on them for some kind of disability. How dare they! This is the height of hypocrisy. And then they try to cut off someones right to publish because you slighted them. These faculty need to be fired.

  10. As a continental European reading this, it is apparent that too many people are blind to their own blatant cultural biases — and it is this ignorance that forms the basis of bigoted imperialism and desires of censorship.

    Replacing expressions such as “the deaf-mute” with “deaf people”, and adorning all of our references with kind words, makes sense in our liberal democratic societies, where the sensitivities of each individual, and the interests of organized communities, have to be taken into account — and into language. Being a Westerner I can relate to that ‘political correctness’.
    But such behavior is not the be-all and end-all of human respect. It is only one form of it, both in time and place.
    – in time: just take a look at the books written on the subject before the 1960s or so, from scientists who did enormous help to the cause of the deaf people, but did not use the p.c. terms.
    Are you going to burn their books and curse them for retrospective blasphemy? Judging by the mob’s behavior, I’m afraid that this already happens.
    – in place: How can you expect people from the great subcontinent of India, who are by all measures only partly modernized, and whose mother tongue is not English but Hindi or Hinglish or a dozen other languages, to polish their sentences like East Coast neo-Puritains? Has it ever occurred to you that they may simply not be familiar with the Western way of advocating for the deaf people?
    Are you going to ask them to retract their papers just for this? Well . . .

    The sheer stupidity of this 21st century bigotry is extremely dangerous for the advancement of science because, formally at least it is just like the bigotry of the previous centuries. It ultimately leads to censorship, as we can judge here.

    1. This is the second comment appearing here that insults Indians by claiming they cannot speak English. There are millions of native English speakers in India. It is insulting to associate real Indian scientists doing real research with scammers publishing illegitimate and poorly written conference reports. You claim to be speaking up for the poor Indian scientists but in fact you are claiming they cannot possibly do research at the Western level. Despite what you think your comment is not a courageous meritocratic stand against the armies of wokeness.

      1. In both of your comments here so far, you assume that everyone is as over-sensitive as you are — the whole deaf community, the Indian nation, etc. That is precisely the anti-scientific Western projection I was warning against. The reality is that only people from your place and time and social sphere react that way — that is, any assumption about one group, instead of being refuted, is judged as some kind of insult.
        For, naturally, you didn’t bother to read exactly what I said, and construed the letter with the intent to portray a bad spirit. What about confronting the arguments instead? Can you?

  11. The authors just ‘wrote’ it up for the sake of promotions and perks. No serious researcher from India or any part of the world would make such a mess.

  12. In my country, Chile , the Language of Signs since the 22nd of January 2021 is considered officially by law as the first language for deaf, with all the guarantees this means, a language that do not want to be converted into a “voice” literally through an application, on the contrary, we the hearing people who study the language as me, are their voice through the learning of the signs interpreting what they say. Their culture is as interesting and rich as any other and deserves respect. Now the authors of the paper retract, the typical excuse after messing things up…

  13. I wonder which qualitative method of inquiry they conducted on Deaf participants for the dumb technology they proposed a solution ? This lacks ethic practice of research about the aspects of cultural and linguistic values in Deaf individuals hence their ethics of studies must be questioned. What an ignorant and insulting, I agree with the author’s concerns.

  14. This is why we all starting call people ” hearing and dumb”. Because they never understood deaf cuture. They only focus their own people. That how dumbest they are. We are different. We understood all different cuture. They dont. That how dumbest they are. Call us deaf and dumb. In return we will call you people hearing and dumb. How that sound? Lol.

  15. Since when did “deaf-mute” is not a term? Moreover, if you check article “Deaf-mute” on Wikipedia and look this term in different languages on the left panel you’ll notice that it’s exactly the same almost everywhere. And hardly anywhere, except of course in US of A, people find it derrogatory or take it an insult. This US-centrism in Academia of all places – that’s what appaling and insulting. Sensibility without sense.

    1. FWIW: On a dating site, I recently saw someone describe themselves as deaf-mute. That was yesterday… not 50 years ago.

  16. Springer Nature needs to take greater accountability for their publications. As both a researcher of sign language linguistics and a publishing professional, I am appalled by the lack of responsibility they take in the quality control of their products. The sad state of the retracted chapter aside, the fact that they would agreed to print a book in which “processing” is spelled incorrectly in the title should serve as a red flag to the academic field, especially with regard to this publisher’s editorial staff. The whole situation is very disappointing, and the take away for me is: Don’t submit your manuscripts to Springer Nature if you want your work taken seriously.

  17. As a [non-American] academic working & living in the US, it was dismaying to read this post. The article in question had a lot of [unacceptable] flaws that should have been dealt with in the peer-review process. Clearly that did not happen. Everyone seems to agree on that. But what also disturbed me more was the affective tone of the response by academics representing those who have expertise in the area in question. I understand the outrage regarding the publication of a sub-standard piece of literature & the use of outdated & inappropriate/insulting terms to refer to research subjects. But to lay claim to a particular research area & suggest that others cannot make useful contributions to the research is extraordinary to me in this day & age of cross-disciplinary collaboration & open science. How unfortunate. Ironically, this perhaps might be a reason that papers like this end up in the literature – because of the ‘closed’ attitudes of the the experts in a particular field. If I have struck a raw nerve, I apologize. I am not doing that to deliberately antagonize. But I am incredulous that a group of ‘experts’ would be outraged that people with expertise complementary to their own would seek to [misguidedly & perhaps naively] try to make a difference in the area…

  18. I have read some very interesting posts here; with some I agree.
    I will not reply to any though, I just wanted to bring two (important) points into your attention:

    1. The retracted conference paper has already been cited twice.
    2. I do not want to believe that the authors had the intention to insult anyone. This paper is most probably just another instance of people from computer science/engineering or data science, who -having mastered the tools of their trade (software, algorithms, databases)- want to find “interesting real-life applications”.
    The motivation for this can be 100% legitimate: “I have the breakthrough algorithm that I will use to save the world (possibly for free) from [ … name it as you wish here … ]”. Or it can be self-centered: “one more paper for my CV”, means more citations (thus promotion) or increased possibilities to succeed in a grant application (plus many more here). The problem is that they often enter in fields of science that they are not even remotely familiar with, without asking help from domain-experts (not necessarily from the US or Europe -yes scientific colonialism is unfortunately still here). This lack of background, is a big problem and not solely because of the increased danger of hurting other peoples feelings but also because often the product of such research is not of the desired quality.

    The publishing businesses’ game, including conferences etc, is another big issue, and they are also accountable for such situations.

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