A Science Journal Invokes ‘the Creator,’ and Science Pushes Back
One thing you don’t see a lot of in scientific journals is God. Invoking a divine cause in peer-reviewed, published work is, well, cheating. So when science Twitter’s flaneurs noticed this week that an article in the open-source journal PLoS ONE published a paper whose authors credit intelligent design—God—for the biomechanics of the human hand, well, things got out of you-know-what.
Because PLoS ONE is open-access, you can read the whole paper for free (no paywall, in other words, unlike articles from subscription journals like Nature). We’ll save you the trouble, though—here’s an excerpt from 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.
It’s pretty bad. The authors—Ming-Jin Liu, Cai-Hua Xiong, Le Xiong, and Xiao-Lin Huang of Huazhong University in China—allude to a Creator three times in the article. An editor, Renzhi Han, let the article through. So did peer review, it seems. And one of the author’s comments suggests it wasn’t a mistranslation issue.
— Carl T. Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom) March 2, 2016
Is anyone actually editing PLOS ONE these days? https://t.co/JCCuzlgXxu
— Ed Yong (@edyong209) March 2, 2016
So was it an editorial misstep, or does PLoS ONE believe real hands were designed as if by an occult hand? “It’s incorrect … and confused,” says John Huelsenbeck, an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley, “and it can’t be supported—so it has no place in a scientific publication.”
Anyway, suffice it to say that researchers who specialize in limbs and their evolution do not agree that you have to invoke a Creator to explain said limbs. (That doesn’t mean the researchers do or do not believe in a Creator. It just means they don’t use one as an explanation for scientific results.)
After a couple days of getting batted around in social media and comments sections, the journal retracted the whole paper. No editors from PLoS ONE responded to requests for comment.
Since PLoS ONE is open-source, it’s tempting to wonder if this kind of mistake calls into question the quality of all open-access scientific journals? PLoS ONE‘s website describes its editorial and peer-review practices, but also says that it can publish faster than old-school journals because it leaves out “subjective assessments of significance or scope to focus on technical, ethical and scientific rigor.”
Yet somehow Creationism got past peer review.
On the other hand, the old big-dog journals have their problems, too—plagiarism, errors, and so on. “I don’t think this will mean anything for open access journals, and it shouldn’t, because it happens at top journals, too,” says Jonathan Eisen, chair of PLoS Biology‘s advisory board and a big-time advocate for open-access (though unaffiliated with PLoS ONE). “Science took ages to address blog and social media criticisms of incorrect information because they only respond to formal criticisms. PLoS ONE is responding to social media, which most journals pretend doesn’t even exist.”
Eisen says that open-access journals have gotten so big, statistically it makes sense that on rare occasions they’ll have missteps. “There’s a feeling in the community that open access comes with no review, but that’s not true,” he says. “PLoS ONE should be handling this better to break the myth. They’re one of the bigger open-access journals, so they need to be more careful.”
In other words: Haters can talk to the hand—no matter how it evolved.