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Okay, I'm in a nasty situation. I'm about to receive my master's degree in two months. Also, I am a third author on my advisor's paper, and the paper is completely awful and full of mistakes. Contradicting results not reported etc., it has it all. The thing is, my advisor will take it personally if I give comments that would put him to a bad light in front of the other co-authors. Very probably, he would let his anger to be seen in the evaluation of my master's thesis.

Really, I have no idea what to do. Should I be quiet, hope the paper gets rejected, and then RUN FAST, or just write a long email about every error there is? Which one is less harmful? I really don't want my name on that paper, nor a biased evaluation of my master's thesis.

(For background, my previous advisor left the university about 6 months ago, and then I got this new one. So, I could probably get a letter of recommendation from the previous advisor.)

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    why your advisor doesn't want to correct the paper mistakes? – seteropere Jul 14 '13 at 0:08
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    Must the paper be submitted before your thesis? Do you have other faculty mentors besides your advisor? – JeffE Jul 14 '13 at 0:24
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    You do not want to be associated with an awful, incorrect paper at this stage of your career. That is, unless you plan to leave academia for good or the paper is published in a place where nobody will ever read it. – Bitwise Jul 14 '13 at 1:11
  • If the paper is really bad, it will get rejected. What reputation harm does happen to you because of that? Nobody knows you were one of the co-authors right? – user13107 Jul 14 '13 at 4:07
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    What about the other authors of the paper? Do they share your opinion or can you at least talk to them about the issues? – Wrzlprmft Jul 14 '13 at 8:55
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Your name is on the paper; you should be able to take a look at the draft, and suggest improvements.

The paper is completely awful and full of mistakes. The thing is, my advisor will take it personally if I give comments that would put him to a bad light in front of the other co-authors.

Okay, there are two ways to address this. You can pubically say, "This paper is awful and full of mistakes," paint your advisor in a bad light, and face his ire.

Or, you can take each of the mistakes, and tactfully offer an improvement. That is, you could privately say, "I think the paper might have a better chance of acceptance if we made these changes."

In other words, don't edit as a critic; rather, put some work into the paper as a co-author.

There's a fine art to editing work in a way that isn't off-putting for the primary author. People tend to get defensive when their writing is critiqued – it's a very natural reaction. However, if each of your suggested changes is offered constructively, as an improvement to an initial draft, rather than an indictment of it, you stand a better chance of incurring thanks instead of wrath.

On the other hand, if the paper is so bad that it's not salvagable, then I'd suggest requesting that your name simply be removed from the author list.

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    "People tend to get defensive when their writing is critiqued – it's a very natural reaction." It is natural for people who have no scientific or intellectual attitude. People who consider themselves as scientists should be able to understand the criticism and improve their works. However, I totally agree that one can apply a soft diplomacy in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts. – user4511 Jul 14 '13 at 13:36
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    @VahidShirbisheh I don't think being a scientist makes a person any less likely to get defensive when he is critiqued. The word for that is maturity. Some scientists have it and others don't. Maturity seems to be correlated only weakly (if positively at all) with scientific ability. – Dan C Jul 14 '13 at 20:54
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I would not say that this situation is totally hopeless, here are some suggestions as to how to approach this situation (remember, these are just suggestions):

  • If you are not comfortable having your name on the paper, ask for it to be removed - is it a requirement for the completion of your Masters?

  • Perhaps ask your previous advisor to co-author a paper with him? Certainly ask for a letter of recommendation as he would have had the most contact with you.

  • If you see errors, then it is important for them to be corrected. I understand your concern with regards when it comes time to defend the thesis - if this concern is major, then perhaps speak confidentially, to the Dean about your concerns.

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    I second the third suggestion from an ethics point of view. Consider the possibility that the paper is accepted - then you will have knowingly participated in the publication of false results. – Gyu Eun Lee Jul 14 '13 at 1:08
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You wouldn’t be asking this question if, instead of errors on a document, your dilemma involved a source of personal injury, such as a hole outside the front entrance folks could fall in and never crawl out of! (Facetious I know, please accept my apology.)

Aren’t you asking “At what point should I point out errors?" Below that arbitrary point I find errors acceptable, above that point, prohibited. Unfortunately, our conscience doesn’t come with a warning lamp. :)

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