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I will be giving a talk in a research seminar in mathematics in a couple of weeks. During this talk, I'm planning to present one particular result of mine which shows that a certain method introduced by another researcher several years ago is quite limited. This limiting result is really simple and I cannot believe that this researcher did not notice when writing their paper.

When presenting this work to my colleagues at my own department I expressed my surprise during the presentation quite bluntly.

I cannot go into much detail but given the structure of the paper in question I cannot imagine that they were not aware of this fact at the moment of writing the paper. To me it rather seems that they omitted this limiting result to make their paper seem better.

How should I behave at the research seminar at a university I'm only visiting where I don't know the faculty that well? Can I also express my surprise there or would this be considered bad etiquette? Not sure if relevant, but some of the people there might know the researcher in question better than they know me.

Edit to address some comments/answers: First of all, thanks for all the helpful answers, they really give me a new point of view. Secondly, I wanted to mention that it was not my intention to criticise another researcher in public. I was (and am still) honestly surprised about both my result and the other researcher. I learned from the answers that others could misinterpret my intentions and will therefore only mention facts. Thanks for that!

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    A very relevant piece of information here: where are you and the other researcher in your careers? I would hesitate to advise a graduate student to emphasize another researcher's professional failures, even when the student is right (specifically: think twice, while early in your career, about giving others the impression that you are more interested in criticism of other researchers than you are in your own work). I would also be somewhat uncomfortable advising a senior researcher to emphasize the short-sightedness of a graduate student's research unless you suspect academic fraud. – nben Feb 7 '18 at 15:44
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    I guess you mean that they failed to state some hypotheses/assumptions. Quite possibly is was a simple oversight in the writing, or they say this, just not in a clear way. (Sometimes it's hard to ferret out the exact assumptions an author is making.) – Kimball Feb 7 '18 at 19:33
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    Something the answers have not addressed yet is that there is a chance that it was clear that the method is limited, and this was simply not stated as the method was simply used to achieve something rather specific. – Andrés E. Caicedo Feb 7 '18 at 20:12
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    A good rule of thumb is this: If you ever find yourself saying (or thinking) "I cannot imagine X", chalk it up to a failure of your own imagination and nothing more. One's inability to imagine a thing has no bearing on that thing's likelihood. – Dancrumb Feb 7 '18 at 21:59
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    When I was a PhD student (computing, not maths) I was surprised to discover errors in a proposed standards document. I consulted an experienced colleague, whose advice was: that paper was written by highly experienced people. They know that everyone makes mistakes all the time, and they will be delighted to have the errors pointed out to them. Your surprise is only because of your lack of experience. – Michael Kay Feb 9 '18 at 23:19
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Talk about the work. Stick to the facts.

Clearly and bluntly stating the limitations of a result is fine, but criticism of a researcher during a research talk is completely inappropriate. Your expression of surprise could be taken as criticism of either the researcher's ethics or their competence, neither of which is appropriate to air in front of a research audience.

Whether the researcher is junior or senior is irrelevant. Whether the researcher is known to your audience or not is irrelevant. Criticism should be delivered privately.

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    Great answer, upvoted. The headline really nails it. However, I think there are circumstances when it might be appropriate to discuss a researcher’s ethics and/or competence in a public talk. To be clear, those would be fairly extreme and rare circumstances, and OP’s situation doesn’t come close to justifying such behavior, so your conclusion in the case at hand is 100% correct. – Dan Romik Feb 7 '18 at 20:03
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    Besides this excellent answer – sticking to the facts is quite often a good guideline – I would like to add that the appreciation that some approach is very natural or obvious all depend of ones identity as a researcher. It is one of the many reasons why researchers need to talk a lot one another! – Michael Le Barbier Grünewald Feb 8 '18 at 5:53
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    There's also a huge difference between "obvious" and "obvious once you see it". – JeffE Feb 8 '18 at 15:15
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    Good advice for any discipline for any talk, paper, poster etc. – tmgriffiths Feb 9 '18 at 2:12
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This is fine:

one particular result of mine which shows that a certain method introduced by another researcher several years ago is quite limited.

These are not:

I cannot believe that this researcher did not notice

I cannot imagine that they were not aware

it rather seems that they omitted this limiting result to make their paper seem better.

express my surprise

This is borderline inappropriate:

This limiting result is really simple

In short, show, don't tell. What you express should be backed up by your results. If it's simple, they'll see that by your work, you don't have to say, "This is simple," or "The other researchers should have seen this" - whether they did or did not is irrelevant to your work.

If you happen to have tested for "surprise" or "Other researcher should have known" or "other researcher omitted information" then present the research and let it speak for itself.

You, however, do not need to editorialize on the subject, and certainly shouldn't be adding your own emotional elements or assumptions to your work.

Present your work, and only your work, and back it up with your research results.

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When in doubt, stick to discussing the work. Don't try to make any assumptions or claims about what the other researchers did or did not know or do. That way, you can't be accused of trying to go after another researcher, which isn't helpful to anyone, and certainly not young researchers just beginning their careers.

  • Would it make any difference if the topic was of fairly wide interest and the faulty result had been accepted because of the authors reputation? That would make the OPs result a surprising one, the audience would be feeling surprised, and the OP might want to acknowledge this and reassure them. There would be both respectful and disrespectful ways of doing this, of course. – Philip Roe Feb 7 '18 at 23:15
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    Like I said, comment on the work by itself, and leave any discussion of the researcher out of it, if possible. – aeismail Feb 7 '18 at 23:40
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Your surprise is irrelevant.1 People are in this talk to learn about your work and where it fits within the context of your field.

Present the facts, your proof/argument, conclusions and context. If that surprises others too, so be it. But, let them get there on their own.


1. It might even be a result of naivety on your part. Maybe the limitations of the previous work are obvious to the author and many other people in the field, and maybe it is actually not surprising at all that somebody else (you) has filled in the gap.

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    Or maybe the OP is wrong and the OP's result is wrong and they're going to make themselves look foolish. – Lightness Races with Monica Feb 8 '18 at 19:23
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    My biggest fear! I wish I had OP's confidence sometimes. – user87249 Feb 8 '18 at 19:23
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    Either way a potential catastrophe may be averted by simply asking. Asking the original researcher whether they are aware of a limitation, and whether they think this could be one. Asking them to confirm the new analysis. That's how you learn. Not just telling them that they're stupid and have "obviously" missed something big. – Lightness Races with Monica Feb 8 '18 at 19:27
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Personal attacks undermine the credibility of your own work. Academia is already teeming with vendettas and squabbles that go more than skin-deep. Keep out of it, both for the sake of your own advancement and the dissemination of your work. God forbid that someone in the audience sees or knows something of the problem that you may have overlooked and calls you out on it in front of everyone else.

It is possible to underscore the limitations of the previous findings by illustrating with a counterexample. If the mistake is as flagrant as you say, the counterexample should be striking in its relevance and simplicity. For instance,

Lamarckian inheritance does not explain why the children of very tall parents tend to be less tall, rather than as tall or taller, than their parents.

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Call the researcher and ask him/her what they think about x. When you get the answer, you can relate what he or she told you.

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