2016 paper mentioning "the Creator" retracted from PLOS One - a case of cultural miscommunication?

I missed this entirely until reading an article where an ID supporter offered this as an example of anti-religious discrimination in academia. Here’s a Washington Post article which gives a good summary of the events:

In short: a paper was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE titled Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living. The abstract and paper contain several references to “the Creator”, such as the following:

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. The clear link between the structure and the function of the human hand also suggests that the design of a multifunctional robotic hand should be able to better imitate such basic architecture.

The paper appears to have nothing to do with pro-ID or pro-creationism arguments. Still, the references to “the Creator” appear rather haphazard and scientifically unmotivated. These references produced alarm among many readers, which eventually resulted in the retraction of the paper. What intrigued me was a clarification by Ming-Jin Liu, one of the four Chinese authors of the paper:

Some questions I’d be interested for people to discuss.

  1. Do you think the whole incident shows anti-religion bias in science, as ID advocates allege?
  2. Do you think the retraction of the paper was an overreaction?

My personal take
Regarding the first question: as @swamidass has argued, in science today the rules are such that you cannot talk about God as you would in a theology article. This reflects the role of methodological naturalism (MN), where science can only restrict itself to testable phenomena, which I agree with. However, it is interesting that even today we still sometimes refer to “Nature” in the abstract when talking about science, especially in conversational contexts (e.g. “We are fortunate that Nature has given us the thorium monoxide molecule, which allows to measure the electron electric dipole moment with unprecedented sensitivity.”). I suspect that this is connected to how physicists writing for a popular audience have slipped into “God” language even though they don’t really mean to advance religious ideas in the conventional sense. See Einstein (“God does not play dice”), Hawking (“the mind of God”), Paul Davies, etc.

To me as a Christian physicist, “Nature” and “the Creator” are more or less synonymous, for I don’t think MN conflicts with God’s role as Creator and sustainer of Nature. Still, I can understand that in the American context, “the Creator” has additional religious connotations that make it inappropriate for a science journal article.

On the other hand, it could be that in biology-related fields, even references to “nature” are considered forbidden. It would be interesting for the biologists here to chime in on whether even references to “nature” are frowned upon.

Regarding question two: If we accept the explanation by Liu, then it seems to me that the proper response be to rewrite the article and replacing the references to “the Creator” by “nature” or “evolution”, or taking them out entirely. To me, the whole incident seems to be an instance of a cultural miscommunication. The Chinese authors apparently had little awareness of the sensitive nature of debates about creationism and design in the US, and was unaware of the connotation of the word “the Creator”. However, the readers in the US were too quick to jump to the worst possible conclusion, assuming their cultural context is what matters (“this is a paper by ID/creationist advocates trying to sneak design into science!”). It seems that the editors were simply acting out of fear of many people who had threatened to unsubscribe from the journal if they didn’t retract it.

Ultimately, I think the retraction was an overreaction. If the scientific content paper was of sub-standard scientific quality for even an open-access journal like PLOS ONE, then it should be retracted. But none of the quoted statements by outraged readers referenced any flaws in the scientific content itself, other than the references to “the Creator”, which could have been fixed easily.


Please read my comments with this disclaimer in mind: I am a journal editor, not at PLoS but knowledgeable about some of the issues at work here. These are just my opinions.

I don’t think that’s a fair accusation, but I do understand why it can look that way. My take is that the impression of creationism being injected into a paper is something that a scientific journal would be keen to avoid for a few different reasons. In this case, the comments look (at first glance) to be ad hoc religious claims added to a paper about something else. The reaction of the journal was to the claims and their appropriateness, and this need not imply any bias against the people who wrote the claims. If something like that appeared in a manuscript in our journal, we would hope that reviewers would notice it (and that we would notice it), and then we would simply ask for it to be removed.

Now, I do NOT believe that a journal’s insistence on the removal of that kind of thing (apparent musings about a god) amounts to “anti-religion bias.” I do think that such standards have to be consistent (apply to other kinds of hype or unjustified soliloquizing) and that an author who makes a mistake should not be punished in any way. Our authors make all sorts of mistakes, some of them a bit related to this, and we just help them fix the problem.

I don’t think I can answer this question without knowing more. Specifically, whether there was anything untoward about the way the claims got into the paper. If this was just an error, in which editors and reviewers should have asked authors to remove something inappropriate, then retraction is IMO too harsh. In other words, I don’t think the presence of those apparently religious phrases is alone grounds for retraction, indeed not even close. Same goes for any other inappropriate verbiage in a paper (exaggeration of medical relevance, harshness toward other scientists, things like that). Correction along with explanation is the way to go.

BUT. There is one way in which this scenario could involve the kind of conduct that does call for retraction, and that is if the offending text was added after review, during the proof stage. I have no reason AT ALL to suspect this happened in this case. So this is just “academic” at this point. But that would be a different situation, for me.

I’m glad to answer questions but do ask that we keep in mind that I am sharing my opinion, based on incomplete information, and that I have never faced a situation like this during my many years as a journal editor.


If you mean nature personified, aka Nature, then yeah that’s frowned upon, but unofficially as far as I know. As a turn of phrase, maybe like “Nature has seen fit to…” it can work well in the context of a commentary or review article, in my opinion, if the context communicates a tongue somewhat in cheek. In a research paper, it’s harder to imagine an appropriate use of a phrase like that, and if it started to sound like a philosophical pronouncement (vs. a linguistic flourish) it would cross a line. Again, not a line indicating misconduct or anything even like it. Just a stylistic line.


Thanks for your valuable perspective as a journal editor, Stephen.

Here’s some more updates about the situation that I found:

A statement by PLOS ONE about the retraction, which I think doesn’t really address the issue well, as it does not elaborate on the substance of the quality issues of the article.

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

David Knutson

And a reply by one of the authors (Liu):

We apologize for using some inappropriate words in our paper. English is not our native language, and our understanding of the word “Creator” was not as that of a native English speaker expected. Actually, we would like to refer the word to another meaning like Nature (造化 in Chinese). We are not creationists and our paper does not relate to the creationism as well. On the contrary, if you read our paper completely, you would find that we had referred to the knowledge of evolution in the Discussion of our paper, such as “this unique ability can apparently facilitate the capacity for more effective tool making and tool use during the evolutionary process” and “dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years”. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.

We think our paper can be corrected by removing the inappropriate words. It is not our intention to mention the creationism. We feel regret about the decision by the journal. The language of our paper did have some errors and we apologize for the language errors. However, we disagree with the concerns about the scientific rationale given by the journal. David Knutson, Public Relations Manager of PLoS, explained to Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/arti…) about the concerns on the scientific rationale in March 7, 2016. He said PLoS referred to a comment (http://journals.plos.org/…) and considered that “the authors did not explain how their work contributed to the base of scientific knowledge about the structure of the hand”. In view of that question, we think our work does not aim to further explore the anatomic structure of human hand, but would like to explore the link between function and structure. In this paper, we hope to inspire other people in the design of robotic hands.

We emailed our response about the question to the editors of PLoS ONE on March 9, 2016. Then the journal replied us after several days with more questions raised by the two members of PLoS ONE editorial board on March 14, 2016. After read these questions carefully, we think all the questions are either irrelevant or groundless. For instance, the experts considered that our paper lacked a thorough discussion about the works of evolution. But our work does not relate to hand evolution. The questions raised by the experts may be outside of their expertise because the editors told us the two experts were skilled in human biomechanics. We responded all the questions to the editors on March 18, 2016. The detailed responses would be posted if permitted by the editors of PLoS ONE. The editors replied us on March 26, 2016. They did not respond to our arguments about the questions on scientific rationale. They only said their decision stood in light of the substantial concerns. However, we still do not know what clear concerns they may have, except for the language problem.

We apologize for our inappropriate words and any hurt caused by our misunderstanding again. We hope our paper can have an opportunity to be corrected and republished based on scientific merit. The retraction cannot completely solve the problem because the inappropriate words remain intact in the original publication and may mislead more scientists. If our paper can be corrected and republished, our scientific work can also help and inspire many people in the future research, which is the dream as scientists.

Competing interests declared: We are the authors of the paper.”

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Well, there’s a lot more there than just some errant comments about a deity. I don’t have anything to add except that those comments alone would not, for me, justify even considering retraction of a paper. The comments themselves (I mean the phrases in the paper that refer to the “Creator”) are merely inappropriate. Regrettable, sure, but merely inappropriate. Correction and explanation are the right means to address such errors. If the only problem with the paper was some clumsy verbiage about a deity, especially when this can be explained by cultural/linguistic misunderstanding, then the paper should not have been retracted.

But the situation seems to involve more than that, and I can’t comment further on things I can’t see.


This does appear to have some cultural misunderstanding behind it…


I agree that there seems to be more going on here below the surface. It seems like the paper was not properly edited and vetted (the editor also did not have the right expertise to evaluate the paper), and the “Creator” language was only an example of that. The decision to retract was made in the context of people questioning PLOS ONE’s peer review model, as it claims to publish any scientific paper that meets standards without regard to its potential impact. I can see that they thought retracting this paper would be of more benefit to the journal’s reputation compared to issuing a correction.