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I am working on a special topic in applied math. We are trying to explore a new and largely unexplored area in our line of research. Our hope is to be the first researchers to have solid results in this new line of research.

Couple days ago, my co-author and I have stumbled upon a paper that is titled almost exactly as the topic that we wish to explore and publish.

However, upon further reading, we realized that the paper (despite being published in a journal) is actually very low quality. Not only that the theoretical guarantees does not support any of the applications in the paper, the theories themselves are also very poorly explained, definitions are missing, handwavy at times, and we suspect that the proofs are wrong, but cannot be verified due to author's lengthy and unconventional proof style, which involves some vague interpretation of results contained in other references, one of which is written in a language that is completely foreign to us and couldn't be found online after a quick Google search.

This isn't to say that the authors are cranks (even though the paper reads like one). The paper is roughly 10 pages. Properly formatted in the style of the journal. With ample (albeit, strange) diagrams. It is just that the results are confounding, suspicious, and paper is lacking in rigor, despite being peer reviewed and published in a journal.

For what it is worth, the authors are not working at a top-tier research institute and the journal is not the highest quality of this field.

What should we do when we start our writing process?

  • Should we painstakingly go through the process of providing a critique of a paper that is written in such a way that it is difficult to critique (without dismissing it as poor writing)?

  • Or should we ignore the paper and pretend that we didn't see it? (Despite the fact we wish to work on the same, very specific, topic?)

  • Ultimately, what should you do when you see bad research papers like these?

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    Related1, but probably not a duplicate since in this case the paper is not unique. Related2 but here the questioner (me) is writing a review. Probably neither is a duplicate, but nonetheless the answers might be useful to you. – user2390246 Oct 5 '18 at 12:38
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    Is the journal in question recognised as a bona fide (as opposed to predatory) journal in your field? – user2390246 Oct 5 '18 at 12:39
  • A very relevant point raised by @user2390246 which I should edit into my answer depending on what comes up !.. – Scientist Oct 5 '18 at 14:28
  • Is your aim to provide an exhaustive overview of the field? If not, what speaks against ignoring (irrelevant) prior results in the field, regardless of their quality? If they’re relevant to your findings, the answer changes. – Konrad Rudolph Oct 5 '18 at 16:03
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    "organizer" meaning ... what? An editor? This can mean a lot as well as nothing at all depending on context. I think the main point is, is this a at least marginally relevant journal? – Scientist Oct 5 '18 at 19:30
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The paper must be acknowledged as proper research is based on published literature. You don’t really need to provide some passionate negative critique of the paper like you’ve done here. You can merely point out main reasons why it could not be included in your analysis directly. However I am sure many of the points you raised here should be fairly straightforward to be clarified by the first author (e.g. some relevant passage in seemingly alien language). It would be better to state you’ve tried to clarify key points you couldn’t understand on your own. You never know: perhaps not everyone agrees in that the previous paper is that unclear.

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    Citing this paper will also help others who, perhaps coming across this questionable paper's title at some later time, might think the paper had been overlooked by others and then waste time tracking it down and looking over it to learn what you've [the OP] already spent time learning. – Dave L Renfro Oct 5 '18 at 12:13
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    @DaveLRenfro Exactly. I have been on both sides of this situation before. I have cited papers which I did not find 100% sound, which often contradicted what I was trying to state. And I have been left out of subsequent papers which overlapped with my conclusions. Remarkably so, in a recent case. I think ignoring relevant literature looks quite bad on the authors. – Scientist Oct 5 '18 at 12:16
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Yes you should cite it because:

  1. You know about that paper
  2. You read it in the context of preparing your work. Finding gaps and flaws in previous works is a major part of designing and refining your own research
  3. By your own judgement it’s highly relevant.

Explain your rebuttal of their claims or method using proper scientific arguments. If I were you I would refrain from using words like “hand waving” or “cranks” in a scientific context.

Whether or not you are the first to discover something isn’t really something you can control. It’s possible that they actually did find something of value but were bad at communicating it. From what you say there seem to be still time for you to be the first to get it right but you won’t achieve that by ignoring previous work.

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    This seems to me like it doesn't really engage with the situation described by the question. Enlightened One is describing a paper so badly written that they cannot even determine the argument being made, not one where they are sure the argument has rebuttable flaws. A critique of such a paper inevitably isn't going to involve any "scientific arguments" (or mathematical ones, or whatever - we don't know that the OP's field is a science); it's going to involve painfully picking apart one significant sentence at a time to explain how there's no possible interpretation of it that makes sense. – Mark Amery Oct 6 '18 at 9:48
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If you can find a counterexample to one of the paper's proofs without too much work, then this would be critique enough, I think. You are lucky to be working in mathematics, where the falseness of a claim can be clearly shown.

I would not spend too much time on providing a critique. Ignoring the paper is what most people would do in this situation, but is unethical. Some journals' Guidelines for Authors explicitly require citing all relevant literature.

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You have stated that you "wish to explore and publish" on this narrow topic. This suggests that you have not yet achieved the result you want to publish.

Understanding this paper, and determining whether it is correct or not, may benefit you in your own exploration. If that is not likely, then perhaps an understanding of its failings or virtues will become clear as your own (correct) work evolves, and citing it will not be as problematic as it currently seems.

If you do reach results that conflict with those in the published work, then citing the prior publication is as simple as a sentence stating that that is the case, and your own clear proofs are sufficient explanation.

If your result is essentially in agreement with theirs, in order to claim to be the first with "solid results", you'll have to give readers at least an assertion that the prior paper did not beat you to it. If the paper is really unreadable, you can do as Sander Heinsalu suggested and find one proof you can refute. If the field is interesting enough that someone will find your paper, it seems unlikely they will permanently miss the other one.

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It is well worth a reference. Firstly because it illustrates that your specific field is not just yourselves but that there is some general interest. Secondly in your introduction you might point out how your framework makes it much clearer to grapple with "this poorly understood" realm. Thirdly you can be explicit and say your results are independent and not based-on or rely-on theirs. This means that if their paper is later shown to be based on fairy-dust then yours won't fall like a domino. Fourthly, can your results be shown to be more specific, more general or more stable etc. than theirs? Do they conjecture and you prove? This of course illustrates the value of your approach over theirs.

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