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In a paper published recently in a math journal, the main result is presented as being new, but in fact it is not new, and I'm sure that the authors knew this before submitting the paper. I have informed the journal editor who handled this paper, who told me he would forward my message to the managing editor. I have not heard anything since then. What else can (or should) I do?

For what it's worth, I am a tenured professor.

In more detail, there was a previous paper [A] which proved a certain result (1). The proof given in [A] actually proves a stronger result (2) which has a messy statement, and notes that (2) implies (1) (where (1) has a simple statement). The main result (3) of the recent paper [B] implies (1), but is implied by (2). Moreover, the proof in [B] is identical to the proof in [A] (and the authors of [B] say this in their paper), except that the proof in [B] uses a stronger auxiliary result at one step. So the authors of [B] must have been aware of the stronger result (2) proved in [A], but they do not mention (2) in their paper, and certainly do not mention that their main result follows immediately from (2). To me, this shows that the authors of [B] published their paper under false pretenses, by intentionally misrepresenting prior work. In addition, the auxiliary result mentioned above is presented as a new result in [B], even though it has been published several times and also the authors of [B] were fully aware of this fact, since they had written previous papers citing an essentially identical result from a paper [C]. Even beyond this, the paper [C] contains a result which is stronger than (1), (2), or (3), although the authors of [B] do not mention this.

If people think I am overreacting, I would be happy to hear this. It's possible that my views of proper academic behavior are not standard ones. I don't have a fully articulated philosophy about these things, I just feel like the authors did something wrong and should not benefit from doing it.

Added later: The situation has been resolved. The journal's editor informed me that, after inspecting the documentation I sent him, he has decided to require the authors to withdraw their paper from the journal. I don't know the logistics of this, but to me it seems like the appropriate outcome.

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It might be wise to consider contacting the authors before fetching your torch and pitchfork. Maybe they didn't do these things with bad motives as is portrayed here. –  Marc Claesen May 3 at 10:12
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@user14857 Not every mathematician is a Ted Kaczynski. :P –  Dylan Meeus May 3 at 11:33
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But what good will come of emailing the authors? Of course they'll say they didn't do anything wrong. And even if they don't actually kill me, both they and their friends would despise me, which can cause me trouble I don't need. I don't see this as me-vs-them, I see it as the facts-vs-them. So I just want to put the facts in the hands of the right people, and then have this be handled by the appropriate mechanism. But I'm not sure what that mechanism is. –  user14857 May 3 at 11:54
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The way in which they say that didn't do anything wrong can be telling; for example, do they claim they didn't read the earlier papers that included their result? Do they claim they read them but forgot about them? Or do they dispute your claim that their results are the same as the earlier ones? etc. In case there is some reasonable explanation, arguably the proper course of action is to give the authors a chance to present it first. –  David Z May 3 at 23:57
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Also, I think it's a good idea to keep any concerns of non-academic retaliation (i.e. any talk of mailbombing and murdering) out of this question. It seems you have some reason to believe these particular authors are highly unstable, but for other people who find themselves in a similar situation (of having found possible misconduct), that will not be the case. –  David Z May 4 at 0:00

2 Answers 2

up vote 31 down vote accepted

Let me congratulate you for seeing a publication practice that you suspect is fishy and taking the trouble to inquire about it. This is something that contemporary academia really needs: we are self-policing, so when we let these things slide it is as though we are sitting back and watching a robbery take place from the comfort of our squad car.

Here are my reactions to your story.

  1. You make a very compelling argument that the authors of [B] should have known better than to try to publish their paper. The details you provided do not yet compel me to believe that the authors did so deliberately or with malicious intent. Math papers are hard to read: just because you cite one theorem from a paper does not necessarily mean that you are aware of the other theorems in the paper (you "should be", whatever that means, but that's not the same thing at all) and just because you come across an equivalent version of a theorem does not necessarily mean that you see that it's equivalent. Rather recently I got sent a draft of a paper that contained three theorems. They looked interesting, so I read more deeply. It turned out that two of the three theorems were not new. How did I find that out? By reading the papers cited in the bibliography! But one of the papers was written in a manner where it was a little puzzle to decode every single result (and the author did not shy away from stating more general theorems with more complicated statements; I can't argue with that, but it certainly does make the paper harder to read). The point of the story is that the people who sent me this paper were not bozos: the third result was very nice, and I have just written a paper with them that builds on it. Or here is an even more personal example: in my PhD thesis I combined work of Ogg with more recent work (of Ribet and others) in order to determine whether certain Shimura curves had points over Q_p. I didn't write these results up right away, and when I looked back at them a couple of years later I had to reread the paper of Ogg to refresh myself on what he had done. I was surprised to see that one of the theorems from my thesis was already proven in Ogg's paper! My proof was not the same as Ogg's, but neither was it "better" in any clear way. This may not be that different from what you're describing. These things do happen.

  2. Divining the authors' true motivations does not seem to be your job as a self-deputized academic policeman (if it is, you have an awfully hard job). What matters is that a paper got published that doesn't do anything new and that in fact cites the paper that majorizes it. That's bad no matter what the authors were thinking...but when you look at it that way, doesn't a lot of the blame rest with the journal's handling of the paper? It seems like a referee who was a true expert in the literature or honest and conscientious enough to track down the citation should certainly have caught this issue and prevented the publication of the paper. The journal looks bad just as the authors do. If they are really not being responsive to this, they look even worse.

It seems more likely that the journal is looking into this but doing so slowly (this involves a lot of delicate conversations, including with the authors of the paper), and in the meantime they are not doing a good job of assuring you that they are actually doing something. You say that the matter got referred to the managing editor. If you have waited what you think is a reasonable amount of time and not gotten any further response, by all means take it up directly with the managing editor. It would be pretty surprising if you didn't get at least an acknowledgment of the issue from him/her within a few days. If you really hear nothing back, then waiting a week or so and sending a followup email conveying the fact that a total lack of response is only going to make you have to do more yourself to deal with the situation seems in order.

That "more" would involve talking publicly about the situation: e.g. bringing it up to other mathematicians you know and, depending upon the importance, raising the issue on a site like MathOverflow, putting something about this on your own webpage, writing a letter to the editor to some other journal, and so forth.

Finally, let me say that proper police work here may require giving up your anonymity. I think you should be willing to do so if it comes to that. In your comment you say that you are "[s]eriously" worried about getting a mailbomb from the authors. Seriously seriously? You think that some ethically questionable mathematicians are likely to commit a violent felony?? I find that hard to believe, but if it's really true you need to contact the actual police.

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Wow. Thanks so much for the encouraging and insightful response! I feel a bit like I'm following in Serge Lang's footsteps, by not being silent when something seems wrong. But I've heard many mathematicians suggest that although Serge was usually in the right, he often took things too far and caused bigger problems than the issues warranted. So I'm nervous about whether I'm doing the right thing. Regarding this case: the authors of [B] had to know result (2) from [A], since result (2) is the next-to-last assertion in the proof of (1), which they basically copied as their proof of (3). –  user14857 May 3 at 11:50
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Lang did sometimes take things too far. Probably part of his motivation for doing so was that many people do not take things far enough. I agree that moderating your own level of involvement is a good idea. If it were me then I would certainly follow up with the managing editor of the journal, more than once if need be. If I didn't get any response at all I would consider calling them. I would probably not do much more than this unless the paper was playing an important role in someone's career. –  Pete L. Clark May 3 at 18:10
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Regarding your followup information: okay, it sounds bad. I agree that if you are convinced that the authors behaved unethically, then it seems pointless to contact them directly. Contacting the editors will (at any rate should, and you can check up on this) get them contacted indirectly anyway. –  Pete L. Clark May 3 at 18:11

There is a ton of malfeasance and ineptness in academia. I wouldn't worry too much about this. The main thing is to improve your own research record to the point that you are being invited to be the editor of the flagship journal and can steer the field in a better direction.

Say that you make a big deal of this. What happens? People start citing the work and the author's citation index* goes way up. Best to ignore poor research.

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I wonder why you think clarifying that a mathematical paper contains no new results would increase the number of citations of the paper. This seems counterintuitive to say the least. Perhaps you could back up your claims with an example. –  Pete L. Clark May 5 at 2:51
    
Everytime you cite a paper (even when criticizing it), you increase the citation index. Of course, you can criticize it in external channels -- blogs, etc. But review committees have been taking these into account as well. Believe it or not, some people would rather be controversial scholars than unknown scholars. –  RoboKaren May 5 at 15:43
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The process of "criticizing" a mathematics paper does not involve citing it. It involves arranging for the journal to retract the paper or issue a statement of priority. I have no doubt that such a statement would move the community in the direction of citing the original paper rather than the copy. As I said, I would be very interested if you could provide an example of a mathematics paper in which publishing a statement of priority or corrigendum increased the citations of the derivative paper. If you don't have even one example, then your answer seems problematic. –  Pete L. Clark May 5 at 21:00
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It seems like this is a miscommunication across fields. I understand that in many fields, the traditional way to point out flaws in a paper is to write and publish a new paper, whose main purpose is to discuss ("criticize") the first. Naturally, this new paper will cite the paper under discussion, since how else will the reader find it? But as Pete says, mathematics simply doesn't have this tradition of critiquing papers with other papers. If a paper is objectively incorrect or redundant, it is corrected or retracted; otherwise people discuss its merits through informal channels. –  Nate Eldredge May 6 at 1:14

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