The ‘La Creazione’ (The Creation) fresco by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri)

As far as evolutionary adaptations go, the human hand — with its jointed fingers and grasping thumb — is pretty impressive.

So impressive, three authors of a paper in the scientific journal PLOS One seemed to suggest, that it might be the product of divine intervention.

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

It’s rare for any kind of deity to get a shout out in a scientific journal, let alone one as well-known and widely-read as PLOS One, so the reference raised alarms in the scientific community as soon as it was pointed out online last week.

The article’s authors were lambasted and PLOS One upbraided. Hashtags (#HandofGod) were invented, hot takes and blog posts furiously scrawled. The study was eventually retracted, but #CreatorGate leaves scientists with lingering questions about problems with peer review, the perils of the publication process and the possibility that science may have to contend with some orthodoxies of its own.

The paper in question, “Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living,” was actually published in January, and apart from the unusual “Creator” reference, it is fairly quotidian. Analyzing data taken from 30 (consenting) participants, they looked at how the structure of a human hand allows us to perform a variety of gripping tasks — data they say can be used by engineers building robotic hands and other gripping tools. It does not appear that there is any problem with their methods or their findings.

The issue is what they make of those findings. In their discussion, the authors — Ming-Jin Liu and Cai-Hua Xiong of Huazhong University of Science and Technology in China, Xiao-Lin Huang of Tongji Hospital, also in China, and Le Xiong Foisie, a business student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts — write that “the mechanical architecture [of the hand] is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions.” Similar language appears in the abstract — the brief summary that appears at the top of every article. 

James McInerney, the chair in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Manchester and an editor for the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, got the outrage ball rolling with this tweet last Wednesday:

The tweet, and others like it, struck a nerve because PLOS One is an open access journal; all its articles are available online for free [PLOS stands for “Public Library of Science.] In an industry where much research is hidden behind high paywalls and costly fees (a yearlong subscription to Nature is $199), this can be a boon to researchers and their readers. But it may come at a cost: A famous 2013 sting published by Science found that many open access journals — described as “the wild West in academic publishing — will publish faulty articles with little or no scrutiny.

PLOS One, which publishes some 28,000 articles a year with the help of 76,000 reviewers, promises a faster publication process because it doesn’t vet studies based on their potential impact on their field. But it does subject each submission to a “rigorous quality control and peer-review evaluation process,” it says on its website.

 

Then there are the accusations that these journals, many of which require authors to pay a publication fee, are “predatory,” taking money from researchers without providing rigorous peer review or any of the other benefits of being published in a respected journal. PLOS One charges authors $1,495 per article.

But the dig against PLOS One — that an unscientific reference to a higher power somehow slipped through its peer review and editing process — was uncomfortably close to the criticism that all open access journals were unreliable. And it left scientists, including some of PLOS One’s own editors, fuming. Several said they would boycott the journal unless it retracted the paper.

By Friday, the journal announced that it would be retracting the article, citing “inappropriate language” and an evaluation of the manuscript and pre-publication process that revealed “concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review.” It did not clarify what those concerns were.

In a statement to the blog “For Better Science,” PLOS public relations manager David Knutson said that the academic editor who handled the paper has apologized and was asked to step down. The subject of the study was outside the editor’s realm of expertise, Knutson added, a problem the journal is looking into.

But the retraction didn’t stop the swirl of controversy around the study. A comment posted by lead author Ming-Jin Liu called into question whether a retraction — which can be devastating for a scientist’s career — was really the way to handle this. According to Ming-Jin, “Creator” was a mistranslation — really, the authors were trying to attribute the development of the hand to the ingenuity of nature.

Which makes some sense, given that the in the same sentence in which they seemed to be promoting creationism, the scientists also discussed “the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.”

The fact that “Creator” wound up in the final version was the fault of PLOS One’s reviewers and editors, some argued, not the authors. They said that the authors should be invited to resubmit a better-translated version of the study.

And then there were the critics who argued that this might be about something bigger than a single flawed article.

Maybe #CreatorGate was really about diversity in science, some suggested. All four authors of the hand study were Chinese — was it their fault that an English-speaking audience misinterpreted their idioms?

Or maybe it was about lingering biases against open access journals. PLOS One may be criticized for publishing too hastily, but Iddo Friedberg, a biologist at Iowa State University, noted on his blog that PLOS One responded with corresponding speed: The #CreatorGate study was online for less than three months; by contrast, “It took Lancet 12 years to retract Andrew Wakefield’s infamous paper on vaccine and autism; a paper that was not just erroneous, but ruled to be fraudulent, and has caused incredibly more damage than a silly ID [intelligent design] paper,” Friedberg said.

Other papers, like a long-debunked study on the discovery a purported “arsenic-based life form” in Science, have yet to be retracted.

Ivan Oransky, a science journalist and co-founder of the blog Retraction Watch, commented to the Chronicle of Higher Education that the condemnation of PLOS One “seemed overwrought.” All scientific journals make mistakes, he said, and PLOS One is hardly the first to let questionable language slip through.

The journal’s hasty retraction may have been an even bigger offense than the publication of the paper in the first place.

“Responsiveness is great — you want journals and publishers who are responsive,” he told the Chronicle. “Knee-jerk isn’t.”