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Hand of God paper retracted: PLOS ONE “could not stand by the pre-publication assessment”

A paper with reference to “The Creator” in PLOS One, titled “Biomechanical characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living“, has been retracted after numerous readers’ complaints. A sentence in the abstract went:

“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 was followed by two further mentions of The Creator. In the comment section, the author Ming-Jin Liu claimed not to have meant any God, but evolution:

“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”.

PLOS One announced to retract the paper, mentioning:

“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”.

Another protest storm started, criticising PLOS One for retracting papers solely for bad wording, despite its otherwise solid science. Some even went so far as to accuse PLOS of racism.

But differently from what many read into the somewhat obscure retraction notice by PLOS One, the reasons for the retraction were not solely the references to the divine interference. 

screenshot-journals.plos.org 2016-03-04 22-05-39

David Knutson of PLOS informed me in an email about the real reasons, his entire statement is below. In brief, Knutson said:

  • The language in the article should have been corrected, but there are issues with the quality of the paper in general, the rationale of the study and its presentation relative to existing literature.
  • The decision to retract was taken after a review of the prepublication process, and a reevaluation of the paper by the editorial staff and two expert members of the editorial board.
  • There were issues with the rationale and presentation of the findings that were not adequately addressed during peer review.
  • The Academic Editor who handled this paper has been asked to step down. The subject of the paper was outside his own direct area of expertise.


Entire Statement by David Knutson:

On this particular occasion, unfortunately, our prepublication processes for internal quality controls and the peer review both failed. The journal is committed to maintaining high standards of quality, and this time the process did not meet our standards.  The issues with this paper does not reflect negatively on the vast majority of the thousands of authors, academic editors, and reviewers who publish and evaluate the research published in PLOS ONE. This past year PLOS ONE published more than 28,000 articles that were handled by a community of more than 6,000 editors and 76,000 reviewers. Although PLOS ONE’s publishing decisions are delegated to the Academic Editor handling the papers, we have a number of quality control checks that we perform in house. Most of the time, these checks work well, and catch many issues from the mundane to the detailed compliance with community standards.

The Academic Editor who handled this paper has apologized to us for the oversight. He has been asked to step down. We have also noted that the subject of the paper was outside his own direct area of expertise. This is something we are actively looking into, to find better ways of assigning the most relevant editor to each of the thousands of manuscripts submitted to PLOS ONE. Language issues have been mentioned by the authors and some commentators: I’m not excluding that language issues have contributed to this incident but the language in the article should have been corrected, and there are issues with the quality of the paper in general, the rationale of the study and its presentation relative to existing literature.

 The paper has been retracted. PLOS ONE initiated the retraction after thorough editorial review in response to concerns raised by readers.  Concerns were about language in the article that makes reference to a “Creator” and about the overall rationale and findings of the study.  The decision to retract was taken after a review of the prepublication process, and a reevaluation of the paper by the editorial staff and two expert member of the editorial board. In addition to the specific language issue, we concluded that we could not stand by the pre-publication assessment of this paper. There were issues with the rationale and presentation of the findings that were not adequately addressed during peer review. We are reviewing our internal processes and are determined to find opportunities to tighten the quality controls without causing unnecessary delays in publication.

The current situation has highlighted the importance of post-publication peer review to permit rapid corrections. We have witnessed this process at work in the past few days, and we hope to continue to build our systems to facilitate such feedback with consideration for quality outcomes and credit. We have >6,000 academic editors and in 2015 we have used more than 76,000 reviewers. The vast majority of them dedicate a lot of time and expertise to publication in PLOS ONE. The value added by these members of the community is not transparent in the current closed review process. We are already working on the capability to offer open signed reviews, in order to provide due credit to the reviewers who dedicate their time and expertise, and to ensure accountability of the process.  PLOS ONE relies on the active engagement of the scientific community to accomplish its mission of publishing all rigorous science, and to continuously ensure the robustness of the scientific record. Our processes are intended to support and optimize this engagement. We apologize for the lapse in this particular case and are determined to evolve our systems

David Knutson

Update 14.03.2016. A reader alerted me to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, stating “A spokesman for PLOS, David Knutson, said on Sunday that he could not comment on a report that Mr. Han had been asked to resign from the journal. He added that he did not know of any punitive actions in response to the incident”. I reached out to Mr. Knutson, who then explained why the above quoted statement of his was given to me exclusively. Knutson also confirmed  that “PLOS stands by its statement”.

39 comments on “Hand of God paper retracted: PLOS ONE “could not stand by the pre-publication assessment”

  1. Sorry, but despite a long waffly comment from Knutson, I really can’t see much of a case being made for retracting this paper.

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  2. I would like to note that PLoS used to have an international advisory board biannual meetings and 3 conference calls per year. This has stopped about 2 years ago, probably for other priorities…
    I’m a member of that group, of which I am proud; however, we have not been consulted on such cultural or language issues.

    Anyway, I’m reading the abstract, and its language quality looks impeccable to me. Quite different from the language of the author’s comment quoted above. From my experience, this abstract must have been revised by a professional editor or at least someone with good STM writing skills (which is actually a good thing to do, especially for authors—like me—who are not native English speakers ). The language argument by the authors seems absurd to me.

    I’m not arguing for or against retraction, because this is not my field. However, there’s a big difference between a “Creator” design and a process of selection and adaptation…

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    • There isn’t necessarily “a big difference between a “Creator” design and a process of selection and adaptation.” In Genetic Algorithms, a programmer designed a process for winnowing among randomly selected solutions based on the solution the program is trying to reach. Not survival among the pressures of the current “generation” of strings representing solutions, but selection with an end-goal in mind. Selection and adaptation to reach a plan without “poofing” one into existence — which in biology’s case would defy the laws of nature. Design and evolution in one model.

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      • I guess to put it more succinctly… There is probably no way using only the empirical evidence to definitively distinguish between evolution by selection and adaptation for current conditions, and conscious breeding for particular future traits.

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  3. Pingback: Hand of God paper retracted: PLOS ONE “could not stand by the pre-publication assessment” | Green Tea and Velociraptors

  4. Plantarum

    “in 2015 we have used more than 76,000 reviewers”

    The mass abuse of free labour to derive profit.

    This paper should have been subjected to, at most, a corrigendum. Now I hope PLOS will reimburse the authors for APCs and give them an opportunity at resubmitting a revised version with a fresh set of peers.

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  5. Torbjörn Larsson

    Kudos to PLOS One for their swift and accurate action! I am sure readers are agnostic about the process (though retractions are convenient), but I am equally sure the journal isn’t. Retraction until fixing is a common and useful method.

    @Paul Matthews: “I really can’t see much of a case being made”.

    The stated case, in addition to the claim that lacks support/is a language issue, is that “there are issues with the quality of the paper in general, the rationale of the study and its presentation relative to existing literature.”

    There are now too many comments under that article, but as I remember it someone characterized the work as undergraduate level or something such.

    One can go on and note that creationists attempt such Trojan horses, with the help of lack of proper peer review, all too often – and get sympathies from some readers for reasons unknown – but that isn’t necessarily the case here.

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  6. I have some remarks on the quick retraction of this paper.

    Both the formal retraction notice by PLOS ONE and the statement by David Knutson do not mention anything about the position / ideas of the four authors (Ming-Jin Liu, Cai-Hua Xiong, Le Xiong and Xiao-Lin Huang) and of the position / ideas of the two affiliations (Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China; Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA, USA) about the quick retraction of their paper.

    (1): did the four authors and/or the two affilations agree with the very quick retraction of their paper and/or were they consulted by PLOS about the intention of PLOS to retract their paper?

    Anyone any idea?

    David Knutson wrote: “our prepublication processes for internal quality controls and the peer review both failed. (…). “The Academic Editor who handled this paper has apologized to us for the oversight. He has been asked to step down.”

    So publisher PLOS has accepted that they have made many mistakes.

    (2): I propose that PLOS will invite the authors to re-submit to PLOS ONE an improved version of their manuscipt. I also propose that PLOS will give the authors a full waiver for the APCs when their new manuscript will pass the peer review.

    (3): I advise the authors to take note of all comments of all peers on the scientific level of their manuscript. (There are also comments on various other blogs). I am sure that there are many peers who are willing to help them with improving both the scientific level and the level of English of their manuscript.

    (4): why was Academic Editor Renzhi Han (Ohio State University Medical Center) not immediately sacked by PLOS?

    I have noted that some commenters are concerned that this quick action of publisher PLOS is an indication that publisher PLOS shows partial behaviour.

    (5): I am therefore urging publisher PLOS to retract immediately http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0040808

    The authors and their affiliations of this paper refuse to release to professor James Coyne (University of Groningen, The Netherlands), and as well to a bunch of other readers, the entire set of primary research data. Such a refusal is a clear violation of the rules for papers which are published in PLOS ONE.

    I have contacted publisher PLOS about this issue on 12 December 2015. I have suggested to retract this paper if professor Coyne has not received full access to all raw research data within one month.

    We are right now 6 March 2016. Professor Coyne, and all the other interested readers, have not received full access to all raw research data of pone.0040808.

    The authors and their affiliations of this paper are still unwilling to provide professor James Coyne, and other readers, unrestricted access to all raw research data. The authors and their affilations of pone.0040808 have in the meanwhile started with laywering up (which implies that their lawyers are in contact with [lawyers of] publisher PLOS).

    (6): a quick action of publisher PLOS to retract also immediately pone.0040808 will underline that there is no ground for anyone to assume that publisher PLOS shows partial behaviour when it comes to retract papers from the journal PLOS ONE.

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  15. Plantarum

    Another PLOS ONE paper under fire:
    Functional Characterization of Two Structurally Novel Diacylglycerol Acyltransferase2 Isozymes Responsible for the Enhanced Production of Stearate-Rich Storage Lipid in Candida tropicalis SY005
    Prabuddha Dey, Monami Chakraborty, Maulik R. Kamdar, Mrinal K. Maiti, PLoS ONE (2014) 9(4): e94472.
    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0094472
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/BCF76B0C5B84994CE8B921485C11AE
    http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0094472

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  16. Plantarum

    Some new and interesting perspectives by Paul Basken at The Chronicle of Higher Education:
    http://chronicle.com/article/Paper-Praising-Creator-/235610/

    I’d like to see how Veronique Kiermer and her team at PLOS ONE handle the above Dey et al. manuscript.

    In essence, will a mass anti-Christian pitchfork-yielding demonstration against a few phrases possibly lost in translation, and yielding a retraction within days, trump a paper with a load of apparent figure manipulation protested by 2 or 3 concerned scientists? I have started the stop watch. Let’s see how long it takes to get this paper retracted.

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  17. hi Leonid,
    .
    The hand-of-god paper lists “Renzhi Han, Ohio State University Medical Center, UNITED STATES” as Academic Editor. I am at the moment unable to locate this name at http://journals.plos.org/plosone/static/editorial-board
    .
    Paul Basken states in http://chronicle.com/article/Paper-Praising-Creator-/235610/ : “Mr. Han did not respond to requests from The Chronicle for comment”.
    .
    Paul Basken states as well in this article: “A spokesman for PLOS, David Knutson, said on Sunday that he could not comment on a report that Mr. Han had been asked to resign from the journal. He added that he did not know of any punitive actions in response to the incident.”
    .
    The ‘report’ refers to your blog post ( https://forbetterscience.wordpress.com/2016/03/04/hand-of-god-paper-retracted-plos-one-could-not-stand-by-the-pre-publication-assessment/ ). The article of Paul Basken is dated Monday 7 March 2016.
    .
    David Knutson states in your blog post: “The Academic Editor who handled this paper has apologized to us for the oversight. He has been asked to step down.”
    .
    So what’s going on?

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  18. Pingback: Hand of God paper retracted: PLOS ONE “could not stand by the pre-publication assessment” | rygb

  19. Reblogged this on rygb.

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  23. Dear Leonid,

    The authors of this paper have recently published an extensive comment alongside their paper. It turns for example out that they disagree with the decision of PLOS ONE to retract their paper. Copy/pasted from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/comments?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0146193

    “Response about the decision by PLoS ONE; Posted by Mingjin on 29 Mar 2016 at 08:35 GMT.

    We apologize for using some inappropriate words in our paper. English is not our native language, and our understanding of the word “Creator” was not as that of a native English speaker expected. Actually, we would like to refer the word to another meaning like Nature (造化 in Chinese). We are not creationists and our paper does not relate to the creationism as well. On the contrary, if you read our paper completely, you would find that we had referred to the knowledge of evolution in the Discussion of our paper, such as “this unique ability can apparently facilitate the capacity for more effective tool making and tool use during the evolutionary process” and “dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years”. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.

    We think our paper can be corrected by removing the inappropriate words. It is not our intention to mention the creationism. We feel regret about the decision by the journal. The language of our paper did have some errors and we apologize for the language errors. However, we disagree with the concerns about the scientific rationale given by the journal. David Knutson, Public Relations Manager of PLoS, explained to Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/arti…) about the concerns on the scientific rationale in March 7, 2016. He said PLoS referred to a comment (http://journals.plos.org/…) and considered that “the authors did not explain how their work contributed to the base of scientific knowledge about the structure of the hand”. In view of that question, we think our work does not aim to further explore the anatomic structure of human hand, but would like to explore the link between function and structure. In this paper, we hope to inspire other people in the design of robotic hands.

    We emailed our response about the question to the editors of PLoS ONE on March 9, 2016. Then the journal replied us after several days with more questions raised by the two members of PLoS ONE editorial board on March 14, 2016. After read these questions carefully, we think all the questions are either irrelevant or groundless. For instance, the experts considered that our paper lacked a thorough discussion about the works of evolution. But our work does not relate to hand evolution. The questions raised by the experts may be outside of their expertise because the editors told us the two experts were skilled in human biomechanics. We responded all the questions to the editors on March 18, 2016. The detailed responses would be posted if permitted by the editors of PLoS ONE. The editors replied us on March 26, 2016. They did not respond to our arguments about the questions on scientific rationale. They only said their decision stood in light of the substantial concerns. However, we still do not know what clear concerns they may have, except for the language problem.

    We apologize for our inappropriate words and any hurt caused by our misunderstanding again. We hope our paper can have an opportunity to be corrected and republished based on scientific merit. The retraction cannot completely solve the problem because the inappropriate words remain intact in the original publication and may mislead more scientists. If our paper can be corrected and republished, our scientific work can also help and inspire many people in the future research, which is the dream as scientists.

    Competing interests declared: We are the authors of the paper.”

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    • PLOS should give the authors to have a fresh, independent peer review and the opportunity to republish in the same journal, or reimburse their APCs (assuming that APCs were paid).

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