On Jan. 5 Cai-Hua Xiong of Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China along with three colleagues published a study on the human hand in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.
The article, titled "Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living," went generally unnoticed, Until this week, when a reader questioned multiple references to ‘the Creator’ in the study. It seems that Cai-Hua Xiong and his coauthors credit God for the versatile mechanisms of the human hand.
Professional scientists, even those who are religiously devout, generally view the introduction of divine entities to account for physical phenomena as a departure from the accepted scientific method.
Scientific American cites James McInerney from the University of Manchester for catching the creationism reference that peer reviewers apparently missed:
The authors refer to a Creator three times in the piece. This, along with other unprecedented declarations such as defining the qualities of the human hand as “superior to other animals," led to a week of harsh criticism on social media – popular Twitter hashtags included #Creatorgate and #HandofGod – before an eventual retraction by the journal.
“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,” says PLOS ONE in their retraction. “In light of the concerns identified, the PLOS ONE editors have decided to retract the article…”
The editors’ brief response has not satisfied all readers.
“This kind of oversight seems less like a simple mistake and more like a systemic failure,” commented a user with the handle canofuncanny on Thursday. “What steps will be taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again in the future?”
Plos One has yet to offer any further explanation or plans going forward, but readers are quick to point fingers at the journal's open-access status.
Unlike other scientific journals, such as Nature or Science, that require a subscription, Plos One is free to all. Some in the academic field turn their noses up at the concept, seeing open-access journals as irrelevant wannabes in the world of science publications.
“There’s a feeling in the community that open access comes with no review, but that’s not true,” Jonathan Eisen, chair of PLOS Biology’s advisory board and an advocate for open-access publications, tells Wired. “I don’t think this will mean anything for open access journals, and it shouldn’t, because it happens at top journals too.”
But because formal journals rarely address social-media criticisms, they are able to avoid the same negative spotlight, explains Dr. Eisen.
“PLOS ONE should be handling this better to break the myth,” adds Eisen. “They’re one of the bigger open-access journals, so they need to be more careful.”
Fellow Plos One authors feel the public relations heat as well.
“Great,” commented DanMadularu on Thursday in response to the retraction, “But an explanation is owed to the scientific community (especially those of us who published here), as to why/how this happened, as it will put doubt on every article that has been, and will be published here.”
PLOS ONE itself published a study on the frequency of retracted studies in 2012. Authors Michael Grieneisen and Minghua Zhang from Wenzhou Medical College analyzed 4,449 scholarly publications retracted between 1928 and 2011.
The rate of retracted articles gradually increased between 1980 and 2000, but “was followed by a period of increasing numbers of retractions per year,” say the authors. The turn of the century has seen over a 19 percent increase in retractions, or almost a 16 percent increase in retractions if excluding repeat offenders. And during this same period, Chinese authors have had far more retractions than their US, EU-27, and Japanese counterparts.
While 4,449 retracted articles may seem like a lot, but the study’s authors argue that – in the overall picture – it is actually pretty encouraging. One estimate suggests that 1.8 million scientific papers are published each year in about 28,000 journals.
“Though widespread, only miniscule percentages of publications for individual years, countries, journals, or disciplines have been retracted,” the authors explain.
One PLOS ONE commenter, jorge_ibannez, referred to the retraction as an opportunity for the peer-reviewing process.
“This event can eventually turn into an overall positive outcome if such policy of full transparency is made default for all submissions,” he wrote. “The review process is an integral part of scientific knowledge production, and this secrecy-based policy is no longer sustainable … This is an ill-defined chicken-and-egg problem, and someone has to start rolling the snowball for anything to start to change.”