Scientists ‘Create’ Controversy

Article cites ‘mighty creator’ in study of mitochondria

A recent paper published in the biology journal Proteomics, which invoked ideas of creationism with little supporting evidence for the claim, has caused controversy within the scientific community.

The authors of the study, Mohamad Warda and Jin Han, scientists at Inje University in South Korea, used the idea of a “mighty creator” in a paper entitled “Mitochondria, the missing link between body and soul.”

The scientists related creationism to proteomics, the study of the structure and functions of proteins, to explain why different forms of life have similar mitochondria, a cell organelle responsible for producing energy.

“I happen to think that contemporary science is compatible with a wide range of religious beliefs, including some rather traditional ones such as belief in God,” said Philip Clayton, who was a Harvard visiting professor of science and divinity last year. “But this article is an amazing example of the wrong way to relate science and religion.”

According to Clayton, the study, published online on Jan. 23, combines religion with science in an unscientific manner.

“There are sophisticated ways to link biological evolution with belief in God,” said Clayton. “But those arguments are philosophical or theological; they are not scientific arguments. The authors of this piece do both science and theology a disservice by shoe-horning the Creator in to solve a problem in proteomics.”

Joshua LaBaer, the director of the Harvard Institute of Proteomics, was a little more forgiving.

“Much of the science is pretty good, but there are some comments that are pretty surprising,” LaBaer said.

In addition to supporting the idea of creationism with little evidence, the authors are under fire for plagiarizing.

According to John H. McDonald, a biological sciences professor at the University of Delaware, they may have stolen sentences from at least six recent biology papers.

These were originally identified online in the science blog Pharyngula and further instances were found using Turnitin.com, a Web site devoted to plagiarism prevention.

He expressed disbelief as to how the article could have been published into a respected, peer-reviewed journal.

“Proteomics is a decent, mid-level journal; not the place you would send your very best work, but not someplace you would be embarrassed to publish in, either,” McDonald said.

LaBaer said that it was surprising that the journal did not discover the plagiarism.

“Usually you would think with peer reviews the people who reviewed would have picked up on this,” LaBaer said. “Plagiarism can be very subtle.”

When asked whether the paper would be retracted, Michael J. Dunn, the editor of Proteomics and a professor at the University College Dublin Conway Institute of Biomolecular & Biomedical Research, wrote in an e-mail that he is looking into the matter with the publishing house, but refused to make any further comments.

The authors of the study did not respond to repeated e-mails asking for comment.

—Staff writer Kevin C. Leu can be reached at kleu@fas.harvard.edu.