In what has to be one of the biggest blunders of recent science publishing, PLoS ONE has released an article about the human hand which attributes its design to “the Creator.” The paper went largely unnoticed until scientists started Tweeting about it two days ago.

“The Creation of Adam” by Michelangelo

“Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention.”

That’s a sentence you expect to see in a Christianity book at most, not in a proper science magazine. Yet that’s exactly what a paper published in PLoS reads, several times. James McInerney, a researcher in computational molecular evolution at the University of Manchester in UK, used twitter to call the journal “a joke” and many have picked up on it.

Researchers have reacted bluntly to this, with several groups openly asking for a retraction. One commenter said himself, his colleagues, and his students will boycott the journal if it stays up.

Now, in all honesty, PLoS reacted fast. In less than 24 hours after McInerney’s first tweet, an announcement came from journal saying that they accept the criticism and will take down the paper.

“In light of the concerns identified, the PLOS ONE editors have decided to retract the article, the retraction is being processed and will be posted as soon as possible,” they said in a press statement. “We apologise for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of this paper.”

However, this still doesn’t make it alright – how could something like this make it past peer review? I mean, the Creator thing is both in the article’s abstract and in the conclusions, which read:

“In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodelling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.”

It seems pretty clear that no one bothered to properly read the paper, and any editor would catch this error easily. This is unacceptable for any respectable publisher.

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So what happened here?

The paper, entitled “Biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination in grasping activities of daily living,” was written by a team of Chinese researchers from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China. Faking science papers is done on an industrial scale in China, but this might not be the case here.

The authors themselves went on the defensive, with lead author Ming-Jin Liu explaining in the paper’s comments section that this is simply a case of a language barrier.

“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 realised 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.”

Having read the paper, this does make sense (at least partially). They do discuss evolution across millions of years, something you wouldn’t expect from a religious approach. In this case, I’m tempted to say the fault lies almost completely with the journal. Their peer reviewers should have immediately asked for clarifications from the authors and if the rest of the paper is valid, change the whole Creator phrasing and publish it. As Andrew David Thaler, a marine scientist and blogger at Southern Fried Science, pointed out, this is in no way the only paper with a dubious approach.

However, I do feel that the attribution of anything to a supernatural creature, be it a God or Nature, is not suitable for scientific publishing.

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