“Creator” Paper Retracted at PLOS One

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Well, true to their word, the editorial staff at PLOS ONE acted quickly to review that paper from January that interpreted their study of biomechanical characteristics of hand coordination as evidence of “proper design by the Creator”. (Look here for background.) They issued this statement today:

The PLOS ONE editors have followed up on the concerns raised about this publication. We have completed an evaluation of the history of the submission and received advice from two experts in our editorial board. 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.

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. We apologize for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of this paper.

The paper’s first author, Ming-Jin Liu, has posted multiple comments asserting that there was no creationist agenda, and that this was simply an issue of non-native English speakers misunderstanding the implications of using “the Creator” when they had meant “natural selection”.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe this explanation, and if this were the only problem with the paper, I would let them make a correction. If, in each of the three places where the Creator is credited, the authors were to cite their findings as “evidence of exquisite adaptation” or some such thing, the meaning would be largely unchanged, and no eyebrows would be raised.

Here’s the thing, though: at this point, I have no confidence that there is not something else dreadfully wrong with the paper. Including three references to “the Creator” — one in the abstract — raises such an obvious red flags that even a cursory read should have identified this as a problem. The capital C makes the word jump out if you even scan the abstract.

I think I would feel the same way if the paper were littered with errors involving there, their, and they’re: it’s a mistake a non-native speaker could make, and it would not make the science wrong. But the only way those errors make it all the way through to publication is if multiple people fail to do their jobs.

So what this says to me is that none of the people involved in the editorial and review process put in even a modest effort. I don’t know if there are major, even fatal, technical flaws with the paper. However, I am confident that if there are major flaws, the careless review process applied to this paper would never have identified them.

The question, then, is how much of an outlier this was. Can we trust that the rest of the articles at PLOS ONE are actually going through a legitimate review process (as imperfect as that is under the best of circumstances)? Or should we assume it has slid into the predatory open-access model of publishing?

In short, I don’t really care whether or not this particular paper is retracted. I do care whether or not PLOS can do something to shore up its review process.

Or is this another piece of evidence in favor of post-publication peer review? It is certainly true that an advantage of that model is that avoids creating a false sense of authority.

One bright side of the controversy is that it provides an excuse to revisit this piece of awesomeness from the New York Dolls:

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