I'm an undergraduate and I've taken part in a summer internship. Part of the internship was writing a paper based on a model we developed, which we're hoping to submit.

The paper is "finished" now, and so we're ready to send it off for peer review. I'm really nervous about this as while I've checked over the code time and time again there's always the chance I'll have made a mistake somewhere which might not get picked up on.

How do people cope with this? If there is a mistake that I haven't identified, and isn't picked up in peer review, how damaging will it be if someone else identifies it later on? I'm kind of nervous given what I've heard about retractions and breaches of ethics.

To the best of my knowledge the model is working, and to my knowledge the results it is generating are correct.

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    A honest mistake is not a breach of ethics. And everyone makes mistakes: for a few examples, see this answer of mine. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 20 at 21:56
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    But, indeed, you haven't made any serious mistake, submit your work and celebrate your first submission! – Massimo Ortolano Aug 20 at 22:05
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    @MassimoOrtolano, ah, perhaps... my aimed-to-be-one-line comment got out of hand. :) – paul garrett Aug 20 at 23:02
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    "Sometimes scientists change their minds. New developments cause a rethink. If this bothers you, consider how much damage is being done to the world by people for whom new developments do not cause a rethink." -- Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, and Jack Cohen. – user3067860 Aug 21 at 19:26
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    Don't let it stop you. As others have mentioned, any mistake that could slip through will be honest, so treat them as learning opportunities. If you aren't regularly making new mistakes in life, you're not living it enough. Just make sure not to make the same mistake repeatedly. – ESR Aug 22 at 6:49
up vote 37 down vote accepted

(Upon @Massimo Ortolano's kind suggestion:)

Your issue is not even about "retractions", much less "breach of ethics", if you (and all your co-authors, and advisors/mentors) are acting in good faith. "Making a mistake even with due diligence" cannot be a punishable offense, or no one at all risk-averse would ever do any new work/research/etc. In other words, it's not like a school course where there is some "ultimate judgement" and "absolute standards". In this regard, many school systems from kindergarten through high school (the U.S. name) through undergrad school (the U.S. name) cultivate terrible reflexes, yes.

That is, even if you did make some sort of serious mistake, it's not like it "goes on your permanent record, and a letter is sent home to your parents, and you'll be 'grounded' for two months". The paper just gets rejected (if the referee detects your supposed error!), and hardly anyone in the world knows about your gaffe... whether or not it is upsetting to you personally. People have to "go out on a limb" (English idiom) to make serious progress, and this oughtn't be punished.

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    The paper may not even be completely rejected. Depending on the error and the reviewers/editor, it might get a request for revisions. – Nic Hartley Aug 21 at 18:34

First, congratulation on your first manuscript! The peer review process assesses several aspects of submitted manuscripts. It's hard for a paper to be denied on the basis of a few minor mistakes. Usually, you get comments from peer reviewers asking for minor modifications, corrections and explanations.

Even the best manuscripts go through multiple steps of submitting and resubmitting after editing as per peer reviewers annotations.

Minor mistaks in code, if they exist, shouldn't be cause to refuse a manuscript.

Good luck again!

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    It might be a little too optimistic to say "a paper is never denied, unless there are big mistakes..." since sometimes/often status issues intervene, for example. – paul garrett Aug 20 at 22:41
  • Agree @paulgarrett. edited the answer accordingly. – N00 Aug 20 at 22:45
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    Is "minor mistaks" a purposeful mistak? – Lio Elbammalf Aug 21 at 15:22
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    who would identify a mistake as purposeful and how ? – N00 Aug 21 at 16:12
  • @Nour Possibly a journal editor? If a mistake is commented on at least once by reviewers, marked as "fixed", and still shows up in subsequent reviews, an editor would be able to tell that and at the very least raise some questions. I don't know the details of the process (I've never been a reviewer or editor) but it's not difficult to imagine at least a few situations where questions would be raised. – Nic Hartley Aug 21 at 18:38

"What if there's a big mistake?" Well, it's detected, everyone becomes a little wiser and more knowledgeable, and life goes on.

If you've never seen it before, check out the case of BICEP2. On 17 March 2014, this large international collaboration claimed to have found something very important. Press conferences were called, people were excited, the popular media such as the New York Times got involved. And then they found out the signal was contaminated. Oops. Life goes on.

So don't worry about it. There're a lot of wrong papers out there. If your paper turns out to be wrong - and it's not certain at all it will - there's likely to be no permanent damage to your career. After all, you'd be in good company.

  • ...I would not call that a fraud. I don't think mistakes in interpreting data and deliberate frauds deserve the same label. – Anyon Aug 20 at 23:04
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    @Anyon that's why I wrote the signal turned out to be a fraud. I wasn't alleging the scientists were being intentionally deceptive. Still, will use a different word. – Allure Aug 20 at 23:07
  • @Anyon The BICEP2 story is far more than a "mistake", there was a whole set of shady things that (some of) the people on the collaboration did, including using unreleased data that they didn't understand from a video of a Planck presentation. BICEP2 wasn't outright fraud, but it was definitely intentionally bad judgement in pursuit of the Nobel. – user71659 Aug 21 at 1:51
  • Fair enough, to both of you. I certainly felt worse for the OPERA folks. Anyway, I'm happy with the edit, and happy to leave it at that. – Anyon Aug 21 at 3:01

There is an issue that arises with many academics, especially young ones starting out. It is called Authenticity Bias and is the feeling that I'm not really smart enough to be part of this community. Everyone else is smarter than me and I can't believe that they are really accepting me here.

You are exhibiting some of the symptoms of that now. I've done everything I can, but how can it possibly be enough? Know that this is pretty common. I don't know that there is a simple way to overcome it other than perseverance. As you gain more experience, you find that you are, indeed, just as fit as other people to practice your art.

The other issue here is that this is an early experience in a complex undertaking. Mistakes can be made. Experts make mistakes and are sometimes misled by a variety of factors. Mistakes aren't normally career ending unless they are serious moral errors.

Another thing you will learn is that as you do more work in your field and write more papers, etc. your older work will look a bit naive. But that is just a result of learning and growth. If in ten years you are a lot better than you are now and your ten year old papers don't seem up to your then current standard... well consider the alternative. If they do all still seem great you haven't learned much.

I suspect that, as you have taken proper care, your current work is fine and that others will also find it fine, even if they recognize that you still have more to learn. And just as authors can, and do, make errors, so can reviewers. Evaluate everything you hear from peer review, accept what is valid and question what seems invalid. In the normal course of things you get a chance to revise a work before it goes for publication. Every academic experiences this.

Even poets often revise their work with the help of peer review. Some of the best, in fact, have published final works that seem to bear little resemblance to the original poem. Feedback helps.

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    What you call authenticity bias, I know as the imposter syndrome. – Keelan Aug 21 at 7:15

This question raises an interesting question in science. If you write a piece of code long enough the probability that there is at least one mistake is one. I have found such errors in the code of others and in my one code. And sometimes the errors appear in the text of the article (misplaced decimal points, mislabelled series in a graph, etc.). These errors can happen and do happen. But the importance of the errors vary: some may affect substantially your results, others may have a minor effect.

The idea to keep in mind is that science is incremental. When you write your article you are only asked to do your best. Substantial errors should be caught at the review stage (not always true), you are told about it and you have the opportunity to correct your error. Otherwise, the error may be picked up later, especially if the code is made public (this is why open science is important). What happens then? There is a new, revised, version of the code you maybe can publish.

The history of science is full of errors. And by constant work we correct them as we notice them. That's how it works.

I've checked over the code time and time again there's always the chance I'll have made a mistake somewhere which might not get picked up on.

How do people cope with this?

By acknowledging that nothing is perfect but that, by the time you, your co-authors and the peer-reviewers have done your job, there probably aren't any significant mistakes left.

If there is a mistake that I haven't identified, and isn't picked up in peer review, how damaging will it be if someone else identifies it later on?

Hardly at all, and what little blame there is is shared equally among all the authors. Everybody who's published more than a few papers has published mistakes. They're almost always minor and they're not a big deal.

I'm kind of nervous given what I've heard about retractions and breaches of ethics.

I don't see any ethical problem in what you're describing. You've done your best to make sure that your work is correct. You haven't deliberately or knowingly included anything incorrect, manipulated, faked or anything else.

Retractions are a big deal but they're only needed in cases where there have been serious ethical breaches (which you don't have) or your work contains a mistake so critical that it destroys the conclusions of the paper. Even in the case of a serious mistake, it's usually more appropriate to publish a correction than a retraction.

Worrying about having to retract is like worrying about getting hit by a bus. Sure, it's a big deal but any reasonable person is already doing everything they need to avoid it – be honest, check your work, look before you cross the street.

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