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I was reading a paper from a reputable journal and found that the authors misrepresented earlier papers that they cited, by saying something like

Theory X was developed in [A, B, and C], but the underlying assumption was not general enough, and therefore it is insufficient to address our problem, which warrants a more general approach.

The fact is that A, B, and C (which are well-known papers in the field) actually presented a general theory, which is applicable also to the problem considered in their paper. The rest of the paper sounds like an argument against something that was not there in the first place.

I think it is a serious misrepresentation if they did it intentionally. Otherwise, they should have been more familiar with the papers they cited. The fact that such misrepresentation slipped past the peer-reviewing stage also suggests that the review was questionable.

As a reader of the paper, what should I do if I find such misrepresentation?

In my case, the first author of the paper is someone I personally know.

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Did you contact the author about the possible misinterpretation yet? –  Dmitry Savostyanov Aug 1 at 12:00
    
@DmitrySavostyanov Yes, I mentioned it to him online. –  adipro Aug 1 at 12:25
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In many fields, it is quite common to disagree with assumptions, arguments and positions by other papers which may, in their own right be quite rigorous theoretically and empirically. To folks from some other fields, this may come across as misrepresentation or misconstrual but really, is not so. My comment is just to point this out. –  Shion Aug 1 at 17:54

3 Answers 3

In general, there is not much you can do. If a misrepresentation leads to erroneous results, one way is to write a "letter to the editor" straightening out the error. Such an approach does not seem right in your case since the error is to state that someone has not reached conclusions they really have. I do not mean to say that this is ok but it is harder to get a comment published when the problem, for example, does not affect future research by introducing errors. One also has to bear in mind that the error apparently escaped both reviewers and editors on the way to publication. It may also well be that the author actually see it the way they write it which means the misrepresentation is not intentional (as you seem to imply). So in the way I read the particular case, I cannot see an immediate way forward. If one writes about a problem where the conclusion you refer to is cited, it is of course possible to point out who was first and thereby contribute to setting the record straight.

So, if a misrepresentation leads to errors, it can usually be pointed out in a published letter. If the misrepresentation concerns a non-critical issue, it is still just as bad, but the possibility of publishing a clarification is much smaller. Now, clearly, these issues are on a sliding scale, so it may be difficult to see where a correction may be reasonable. In such cases, the editor of the journal where the paper was published should be able to provide some feedback on how to proceed.

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The number of people doing research in my area is relatively few. And between the era of papers A, B, C and recently, there was a period of relative inactivity. I am afraid that the confusion might propagate. –  adipro Aug 1 at 12:44
    
I don't think my response warrants its own answer, but I'll provide a solid example I've seen in the literature of my own research -- look at the following three papers in order: journals.aps.org/prb/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevB.48.11431 journals.aps.org/prb/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevB.51.5532 journals.aps.org/prb/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevB.51.5535 There's not only a comment claiming that one paper's reasoning was bad, there's a reply to that comment from the initial author. So it has at least been done, in a reputable journal. –  YungHummmma Aug 1 at 19:41

Since you say that you are concerned about the longer term implications of this error being included in the scientific record, you could consider applying the general theory of A, B, and C to the problem in the more recent paper yourself.

If the approach is successful, as you imply it would be, you could write up the results in a white paper or maybe a conference paper. Their journal submission will almost certainly get more exposure, but researchers seriously attempting to build on their work would more than likely find your rebuttal (for lack of a more appropriate word).

This is of course a lot of effort to go to for something that probably doesn't directly affect you, but it could also ingratiate you to the authors of A, B, and C, if that's something you care about.

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If the journal is, as you say, a reputable one, I'd suggest submitting it to the same journal. You might have higher odds of acceptance (anecdotal, but in my experience you're more likely to get a "reply piece" published in the journal the original was published in) and you can reach a lot of the same audience--- hopefully minimizing the amount of misinformation ultimately spread by the original paper. –  Dennis Aug 2 at 15:21

Since the misrepresentation seems only to strengthen the motivation or novelty of the approach the authors of the paper in question present and don't, from your description, introduce technical errors which may be likely to propagate into future works, I would likely just mention to my friend (the first author) that the way I read them papers A, B, and C present a more general view than his interpretation seemed to suggest, then have that discussion with him.

It could be that he has some insight into the real generality of the earlier papers than you do, or you could wind up enlightening him.

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