• These rats in the Seralini study were highly cancer-prone anyway. (Supplied)
Last week's "creationist biomechanics" paper reminds us that far worse things have happened in science - here are some of them.
Signe Dean

7 Mar 2016 - 5:13 PM  UPDATED 7 Mar 2016 - 5:14 PM

In early January this year a scientific paper on the biomechanics of the human hand was published in the prestigious open-access journal PLoS ONE. Last week it became the centre of a social media outrage storm and promptly got retracted.

The controversy sparked by this study was not due to faulty methods or overzealous conclusions, but more to do with what appeared to be religiously motived language: namely, the authors referred to 'a Creator' three times in the paper.

Here's a quote from the abstract:

"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."

In a somewhat cryptic sentence in the intro, the authors also alluded to a "mystery":

"Thus, hand coordination affords humans the ability to flexibly and comfortably control the complex structure to perform numerous tasks. Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the Creator’s invention."

Upon spotting this seemingly creationist language, people promptly took to Twitter to express their distaste with the hashtags #HandOfGod and #creatorgate.

As an open-access journal, PLOS ONE also allows comments on its publications. In the comment section one of the study's authors Ming-Jin Liu stated that their study had no relationship to creationism and the controversial term was in fact a mistranslation - the word 'Creator' was actually referring to 'nature', based on the translation of a Chinese idiom; however, the paper still got retracted by the journal.

The publisher's move has been met with criticism as well, with commentators saying that there's no explanation on what allegedly went wrong in the editorial process, pointing out that the paper was scientifically sound, and even highlighting this case as an example of racism in the online scientific community.

Now people are in disagreement on whether the paper should have been retracted at all.

Last week's events have brought to light an often-overlooked aspect of scientific publishing - retractions, after all, happen regularly, and most go by unnoticed, even though they shed light on the scientific process. In 2010 two science writers, Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, founded a blog titled Retraction Watch in order to keep track of this aspect of scientific research.

If you look through the annals of scientific shame, 'creatorgate' pales in comparison. Here are some of the most scandalous scientific paper retractions in recent history.

Stressed stem cells, scandal, and suicide

In 2014 one of the most prestigious journals Nature had to retract two studies describing a surprisingly simple new method for inducing pluripotent stem cells out of regular blood cells. This 'holy grail' of stem cell induction research proved too good to be true, with errors found in the studies and failed replications.

The lead author Haruko Obokata was found guilty of misconduct, and her supervisor, a leading Japanese stem cell scientist Yoshiki Sasai died of suicide in August 2014, with some claiming this death was related to the criticisms he received for Obokata's misconduct. 

Sixty papers gone in one go

Another publishing scandal received less press coverage in 2014, although the number of papers was far more impressive - a whopping 60 papers were retracted by SAGE Publishing from their acoustics science Journal of Vibration and Control after a 14-month investigation uncovered a "peer review and citation ring".

"In 2013 the then Editor-in-Chief of JVC, Professor Ali H. Nayfeh, and SAGE became aware of a potential peer review ring involving assumed and fabricated identities used to manipulate the online submission system SAGE Track," says a press statement from July 2014. For every paper they retracted, at least one author or reviewer had been found to be part of this affair, which sometimes involved reviewing one's own papers under a different alias (a total no-no for peer review, obviously).

Zombie GM study

In 2012, a study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology showed that rats fed on genetically modified (GM) corn an the herbicide RoundUp developed tumours at an increased rate. A suitably alarmist press conference and pictures of horribly disfigured rodents made headlines around the world and made significant impact on negative coverage of GM food, but the scientific community was quick to point out many flaws in the paper, calling for its retraction.

Lead author of the paper, Gilles-Éric Séralini, is the president of a research body that opposes GM food, and his studies had been criticised for implausible conclusions before. However, the research team stood by the paper and it was eventually retracted by the journal after the researchers refused to withdraw it. The fallout has since become known as the 'Séralini affair'.

Surprise twist: This flawed study actually made a comeback in June 2014, in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe, and the editor claimed no further peer review had been conducted. Oh, okay then.

The one that took 12 years to retract

No list of scientific shame is complete without the mention of Andrew Wakefield, a former British surgeon who in 1998 published a now infamous and widely slammed Lancet paper on a purported link between autism and the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The controversy sparked by this publication was extensive and hasn't died down to this day, as anti-vaccination activists still use the completely discredited study as fuel for their claims on vaccine-caused harm. Investigations of fraud and conflict of interest were numerous and extensive, eventually resulting in a full retraction by Lancet in 2010. As Ivan Oransky commented at the time, "if there were a Canon of Scientific Retractions, it would be in it." Wakefield himself was struck off the medical register in the UK for serious professional misconduct, but he remains a vocal anti-vaccination proponent in the US.

When you see the extent of damage that scientific misconduct can do, #creatorgate seems entirely benign. If you're curious, you can find many more examples of scientific scandals, fraud, or even just tame corrections over on Retraction Watch.