This Paper Should Not Have Been Retracted: #HandofGod highlights the worst aspects of science twitter

I really didn’t want to care about this paper, at all.

When news broke Wednesday afternoon that a paper in PLOS One referenced the “Creator” in the abstract, introduction, and discussion, I took a look, read through the methodology and results, asked a few colleagues in that field if there were any methodological problems that would indicate that the actual science was unsound, and concluded it was… fine. Not phenomenal, earth-shattering, or paradigm shifting, but methodologically sound.

Incidentally, publishing based on the soundness of the methodology rather than the ground-breakingness of the research, is one of PLOS ONE’s mandates.

But the paper was awkwardly framed around a few phrases referencing the role of the Creator. This framework didn’t bleed into the methods or results but it was there, and the scientific community noticed. I noted, under the assumption that the authors were inserting creationist language into their paper, that there are numerous papers that try to hang their studies on tenuous frameworks and draw not entirely supportable conclusions, and not just in PLOS. Then I chatted with a few colleagues about it and called it a day.

Here’s the weird thing about Twitter: sometimes even your apathy is newsworthy.

So that tweet made a bunch of news sites and I started getting bombarded with questions, comments, and pffiffle*. Which meant now I didn’t have the choice not to care.

The online conversations were myriad. The skeptic community, finely attuned to even a whiff of creationism in the literature, went… well, a little berserk. Some of the most septic skeptics decided to join the fray. In short order the paper was re-reviewed and retracted.

Here’s the thing: It shouldn’t have been.

Passing peer-review does not mean a paper is perfect. Passing peer-review means that the study being reported is scientifically sound. It would be amazing if everything else about a paper–the authors’ underlying motivations in the introduction, how the authors’ choose to render their interpretation in the discussion, and the choice of words and idioms–also corresponded to the scientific consensus. But they don’t. At worst, a poorly argued introduction or discussion deserves a rewrite, but rare is the paper that should be rejected outright whose methods and results are sound while the introduction and conclusion are a bit of a stretch.

As it turns out, even that is not the case here.

The authors responded to PLOS’s decision and revealed that, far from an attempt to insert creationism into the scientific literature, their references to a Creator were simply the result of translating a Chinese idiom into English, and that, in a more literal sense, the idiom meant “nature as guided by natural processes like selection”. In that light, I’m in 100% agreement with Dr24Hours: The “Creator” paper, Post-pub Peer Review, and Racism Among Scientists.

You could argue that a reviewer should have caught this and fixed it. Sure. But perhaps the peer-reviewers (who are anonymous) were also Chinese and the language choice raised no red flag. Perhaps in that case the editor should have caught it. But editors, often overworked and underpaid (if paid at all) rely on reviewers, and sometimes language errors happen. Instead, a quirk of translation was discovered in post-publication peer-review, which is as much a part of the scientific process as peer-review. But rather than a resounding ‘huh? that’s a funny way to phrase it’, we went ballistic and the paper was retracted.

Retractions have huge consequences for scientific careers, and could destroy a young researcher.

Typos and mistranslations that do not undermine the fundamental soundness of a scientific study do not warrant retraction.

*pffiffle: the generic tweets that aren’t necessarily trolling but are just unbelievably annoying, uniformed, or irrelevant.

  1. Thank you for your commentary. I agree and there is now a parade of chinese-speaking commentators on my post explaining the translation issue.

  2. The trouble is, anyone reading this paper in the future who isn’t familiar with the translation issue is very likely to jump to the same conclusion that most did, which isn’t exactly going to do the authors any favors either. As the paper was accepted then at the very least they should allow the authors to resubmit for publication with minor corrections to clarify the writing.

    • PLOS ONE has a mechanism in place to issue an erratum. Simple. No retraction needed.

  3. Thank you for explaining this so clearly. An erratum does seem like the best way to deal with a poor choice of words by someone writing in a second language.

  4. I wonder if people would be so up in arms (and demanding of retraction) if people didn’t view peer review as a stamp of “correctness” and instead viewed it as the fallible filter for obvious mistakes that most scientists realize it is.