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in PLOS One, titled “Biomechanical characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living“, has been retracted after numerous readers’ complaints.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.
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
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”.