A scientific paper on the movement of the human hand stirred controversy as it referenced a “Creator” throughout, including sections such as “design by the Creator.” It triggered a debate on Twitter and the scientific community over the quality of editing and peer review at the journal that released, and eventually retracted it.
The paper, authored by Cai-Hua Xiong of Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China and three other researchers, was published in PLOS ONE last Jan. 5.
Titled “Biomechanical Characteristic Of Hand Coordination In Grasping Activities Of Daily Living,” the paper delved on the mechanics of how people grasp things, measuring hand movements of 30 subjects.
“Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention,” says the paper, which also concluded that the “mechanical architecture [of the hand] is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions.”
On Twitter, computational molecular evolution expert James McInerney of the University of Manchester criticized the piece and dubbed the journal “a joke.” He said he published a strong tweet because creationism has been a “nuisance” to him for more than 20 years now.
Plos One is now a joke. "....proper design of the Creator" absolute joke of a journal https://t.co/AJexYjewoo
— James McInerney (@jomcinerney) March 2, 2016
The apparently creationist slant of the paper got Twitter all abuzz with the hashtags #Creatorgate as well as #HandofGod.
In response to an inquiry from Nature, Xiong said the authors are now discussing the issues raised.
“Indeed, we are not native speakers of English, and entirely lost the connotations of some words such as ‘Creator.’ I am so sorry for that,” he explains.
In the comments section, the authors made the same acknowledgment, citing translational errors – instead of a belief in intelligent design – for the “Creator” references.
In a statement appearing in the comments, PLOS ONE’s staff also apologized for the language pertaining to a “Creator” in the research, admitting it was not addressed during review and evaluation. They said they are looking into the issues raised and that they would take steps to correct the published piece.
“We apologize for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of the paper,” the journal said. It also announced on March 3 that it is retracting the article.
On his blog, biologist PZ Myers said that where there is inherently nothing wrong with the paper’s data, its researchers made “a surprising leap” in the abstract as well as conclusion.
Genomics researcher Enrico Petretto of Imperial College London was more straightforward in his comment, saying he and his students and collaborators would be left with no choice but to stop reading, reviewing, and citing PLOS ONE studies if no retraction will be made.
David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, argued that the paper may not exactly be bred by creationist research, with the authors assuming “evolutionary remodeling” of the hand for millions of years. He also speculated on a language issue, as the authors as well as the editor, Renzhi Han, are all Chinese.
PLOS ONE academic editor and evolutionary biologist Marc Robinson-Rechavi added that no human process is spared from errors – the point, he said, is how the journal responds to the mistake made.
Photo: Nate Steiner | Flickr