Last January, the nine year-old open-access online science journal PLOS ONE published an article about the biomechanics of the human hand. The article admired the design skill of “the Creator.”
When this anomalous intrusion of religious doctrine into scientific publishing was recently widely noticed, PLOS ONE retracted the article.
Initial appearances were that this might be another creationist exploit against an insufficiently vigilant mainstream scientific publisher. In reality, the problem was more fundamental. English is the world’s leading second language, and the language of choice for many academics. Inevitably, much is written and published in English that is composed by people who aren’t native speakers.
Three of the four authors of the retracted paper work in China. As the lead author wrote in the journal’s post-publication comments feature,
We are sorry for drawing the debates about creationism. Our study has no relationship with creationism. English is not our native language. Our understanding of the word Creator was not actually as a native English speaker expected. Now we realized that we had misunderstood the word Creator. What we would like to express is that the biomechanical characteristic of tendious connective architecture between muscles and articulations is a proper design by the NATURE (result of evolution) to perform a multitude of daily grasping tasks. We will change the Creator to nature in the revised manuscript. We apologize for any troubles may have caused by this misunderstanding.
The explanation is the very model of understandable, but not native-spoken English.
That should have been the end of the “bad faith” (so to speak) aspect of the incident, except that the second author, Le Xiong, listed her affiliation as Worcester Polytech’s business school. Some thought that her English should be finely honed, if she is “affiliated” with an American institution. As it turns out, she is a student there. She describes her mastery of English as at a “professional working” level, which is entirely credible for an “English as a Second Language” student in a business school.
So, the good news is that the paper wasn’t a creationist exploit after all and that the journal’s post-publication monitoring features did their job. The bad news is that the reviewers, review manager and editors didn’t do theirs. There are three references to “the Creator,” including one in the abstract. How could a reviewer read the paper and not at least inquire of the authors, “What do you mean by this?”
That kind of lapse matters for an open access journal, where authors pay to have their work published. There is always going to be some suspicion that the journal is a “vanity press.”
PLOS ONE has a good record, and a respectable impact factor (that is, readers actually use in their own work the articles which the journal publishes). The journal needs to fix whatever went wrong here. It acknowledges the problem in its retraction statement.
… the PLOS ONE editors have carried out an evaluation of the manuscript and the pre-publication process, … This evaluation confirmed concerns with the scientific rationale, presentation and language, which were not adequately addressed during peer review… The editors apologize to readers for the inappropriate language in the article and the errors during the evaluation process.
It would also be welcome to read what actions the journal is taking to prevent future errors.