The aftermath of “the Creator” controversy at PLoS ONE

In the beginning of March, social media erupted with a controversy around an article published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE that cited “the Creator” as a source for design of human hands. Now that three weeks have passed, what are some of the lessons learned?

The article and initial reactions

First of all, the source of the controversy. The article included a number of references to the Creator, including a following statement in the abstract: “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.” References to the Creator were further also made in the article itself, both in the introduction and conclusions.

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While the article was published online on January 5th, the public controversy only started early March, when James McInerney, Chair in Evolutionary Biology at University of Manchester, tweeted his outrage at the statements made in the paper, by calling the publication “a joke”. He later noted that his strong language was due to nuisance with creationism for over 20 years.

However, the publication that had been under the radar for about two months now got massive attention in social media. During a single day, 2nd of March, some rather strong responses were posted in the PLoS ONE article comments. A number of commentators who presented themselves as editors and reviwers of PLoS One threatened to withdraw from the journal. The same day, PLoS issued a statement that they would examine the concerns raised.

Rather quick, the story was picked up by a number of science journalism sites (later also Nature news), and subsequently by a number of mass media outlets. In their response to Nature, the authors of the paper apologized and argued that they were not native speakers and thus “entirely lost the connotations of some words such as ‘Creator’”. Early 3rd of March, in the comments section, the authors emphasized that the use of Creator was a misunderstanding, and what they meant was “nature” and evolution.

From reaction to retraction

However, the day after, on March 3rd, PLoS ONE issued a new statement about retracting the article. This has been followed with another debate whether the retraction was correct or not, as some would argue this is an issue of cross-cultural communication and that authors should be given the opportunity to revise the article and provide a corrigendum. The basic question then is whether bad wording is sufficient grounds for retraction. The Chronicle had also asked a number of Chinese language experts, but not being able to have a definite answer whether this could have been an issue of translation. Here, the views remain somewhat divided – while many applaud the rapid retraction, there are also those who are critical and view this as too harsh of a reaction.

In the final retraction note it was noted that this was not only due to the “Creator” word, but also the overall rationale and findings of the study. David Knutson from PLoS provided a statement to the site “For Better Science“, also arguing that the retraction was also linked to quality and that there had been issues with the review process. The site published the entire statement by Knutson, where he among other things also said that there were “were issues with the rationale and presentation of the findings that were not adequately addressed during peer review“. Furthermore, according to Knutsons’ statement that was published there, another consequence has been that the the academic editor has arguably been asked to step down. In a statement to the Chronicle, Veronique Kiermer, the executive editor of PLoS said that in this instance both the quality control and peer review failed.

Lessons learned?

As the case attracted considerable attention and a very rapid retraction, some commentators have argued that the reactions PLoS one received were “overwrought”. While PLoS ONE has indeed received considerable amount of bad press, cases of controversy have also been shown elsewhere and in rather renowned journals, not least in the “memory water” casein Nature that appeared to provide evidence for homeopathic medicines (later unsubstantiated). This would suggest that mistakes have happened also in major journals, and likely also happen elsewhere, without equal amount of public outcry.

However, what still has not been revealed are the actual comments in the review process and what exactly went wrong in the process. While Kiermer has stated that PLoS is considering to make review texts publicly available, the review process for this article remains a black box. When Retraction Watch contacted PLoS ONE and the editor about the process, the answers did not reveal many details. No further updates have been provided at this point.

At this point, it is thus not very clear whether this was in fact a case of poor translation, issue with presentation of findings or an example of a religious agenda (or all of the above). However, these are issues that should have been addressed in the peer review process. Thus, despite massive public attention, it still remains unclear whether there are indications that this can be seen a more systemic issue or a single case. While the appropriate forms of peer review are still debated, this raises some important questions about transparency of peer review processes.

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by: Mari Elken