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I am co-author of a submitted manuscript. I think I found a mistake in a methodological approach in our paper. But I am not sure if I am right. But if that mistake is really there, then some conclusions in this paper could be changed. It will not invalidate the whole paper, but some parts would have different meaning.

I already had some arguments on this paper, so I do not want to point some mistakes to my colleagues. I fear that if I will point to this possible mistake, my co-authors will get angry.

I don't even know when and how should I discuss this issue with co-authors? Some authors are reachable only by email and I don't know if I should ask about this mistake only the main author, or send the email to everybody. Or should I just briefly explain what I mean or send a proper document with explanation why I think I am right?

I am thinking of waiting until review; if reviewers do not point to that mistake I will raise it.

Edit: By mistake, I do not mean that we carried out our method of choice incorrectly; instead, I think we should have chosen a different (potentially more correct) method of analysis.

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    You could ask a non co-author colleague to take a look. If they agree with your findings, then contact your co-authors. – user2768 Mar 22 at 9:49
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    Write a review of the article and send it to all co-authors, as soon as possible. This is what every co-author should have done before submission. In the end you have to decide to remove your name from the paper if there is no agreement among the authors and separate the whole issue from the journal review, I hope you understand why – user847982 Mar 22 at 10:38
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    Your options seem to be (a) a bit of momentary embarrassment and time spent examining and maybe fixing it or (b) eternal embarrassment if it is published with a flaw that is later found. – Buffy Mar 22 at 11:10
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    I fear that if I will point to this possible mistake, my co-authors will got angry. — If you trust your colleagues that little, why do you work with them? – JeffE Mar 22 at 13:38
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    @Dawn I am not sure if it is a mistake, I think there could be a bit better approach. – user3624251 Apr 5 at 15:14
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If you believe there is an issue with a paper you are a co-author of, then you absolutely should discuss it with your co-authors. In most (all?) fields, having read and approved the final manuscript is a necessary condition for authorship of a publication. I assume that you cannot really approve of a manuscript that you suspect has methodological flaws, so you should speak up now. Whether that is best done by emailing everyone or just contacting the lead author depends on a lot of external and contextual factors, so I cannot offer advice there.

Waiting for reviewers to spot the mistake seems like a very bad strategy. After all, what will happen if they don't spot the mistake? Either you bring up the issue after receiving the reviews (which is surely not better than bringing it up now) or you remain silent and become co-author to a paper that may have serious methodological problems.

In the end, if you bring up the issue now, there are three possible outcomes (presumably after some arguments and back-and-forth):

  • You convince your co-authors that there is an error. Since the paper is already submitted, all authors will have to discuss how they want to handle the issue in that case. This may range from updating the paper with the necessary corrections after receiving the reviews (regardless of whether or not the reviewers found the same issue) to retracting the paper.
  • Your co-authors convince you that the issue is in fact not important or not an issue at all, which may also help to improve the paper (clarify why x is not an issue in this particular context).
  • Neither you nor your co-authors are convinced by the others. In that case, you may have to withdraw as an author, painful as that may be.

I would argue that each of these results (even the last one) is preferable to just hoping for peer review to catch the issue you already know is there.

Edit: I missed that the manuscript was already submitted. However, I don't thnk this fundamentally changes things.

  • first and third option is not possible because it is already submitted – user3624251 Mar 22 at 10:34
  • See edited version of the answer. – RafG Mar 22 at 11:11
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    If the review finds the flaw, then the paper is likely to just be rejected. Not chance for a revision. Time for action. – Buffy Mar 22 at 11:40
  • @Buffy but can we pull-out the paper, revise it and send back to the same journal? – user3624251 Mar 22 at 11:52
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    Probably, though that is up to the editors. You need consensus with your co-authors, but you can certainly withdraw the paper until fairly late in the process. Certainly better to warn the editor than to face rejection. That might foreclose resubmission. Some journals don't permit resubmission of rejected papers. – Buffy Mar 22 at 12:13
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I think you have only one course of action that is both proper and safe.

You should immediately contact your co-authors pointing out your reservations in detail. It is but a momentary embarrassment if you are wrong. Then, if your colleagues agree that there might be a serious methodological error, especially one that might change the conclusions, then you need to immediately contact the editor, asking for advice and suggesting withdrawal while you fix the issue.

The down sides of other actions (or inaction) seem to me to be too severe to contemplate. If the paper is sent to review and the reviewers find the errors, complex as you suggest, they will most likely suggest rejection, rather than trying to work how it should be fixed. Some journals won't accept a future version of a rejected paper, so you would be back to the start in finding a publisher, and you would need to spend the time to fix the paper in any case.

But the consequences of the reviewers not finding the error are equally bad or worse. If, they don't find it and you, then report it, then you still need to fix it and the editor may not have the patience you require. The paper will need, then, to be sent out once more for review, delaying the publication, at best. Of course, you have no guarantee what that review will suggest.

Finally, if the reviewers don't find find the error and you don't report it, then the paper will likely be published. If it doesn't have an error then all is well, but you are probably one of the best people to know if there is really an error, and if you suspect it, then there is an issue whether you have an error or not. But if the paper is published with an error, then it will probably be found eventually, damaging everyone's reputation, yours as well as the journal's. Editors won't be very happy to work with you in the future, feeling that they have been misled.

Swallow your pride. Start the wheels in motion. Your reputation is at stake.

  • what can be the consequencies if I will want to pull-out the paper against the wish of others (my boss is a co-author too) – user3624251 Mar 22 at 13:32
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    You may have to submit to the will of superiors, of course. But if others make the wrong decision, you won't be complicit. If you are certain the paper is flawed and they want to continue on with it, withdrawing your name as co-author is probably appropriate, but might be hard on your future. Do what you can and should without endangering your future unnecessarily. But the first step is to inform them of the issue. Hopefully, if there is a flaw, then your boss will appreciate the heads up. Not all bosses are enlightened, of course. – Buffy Mar 22 at 13:35
  • While I believe what you propose is ethically good, I think it is fair to point out that there is in fact very little personal risk in publishing a flawed paper. Many authors get easily away with ignoring grave errors even after they have been made publicly known. Not even all cases of intentional misconduct result in notable career repercussions. As long as you can show plausible deniability (e.g. that you didn't notice the error) a punishment is very unlikely. Nevertheless resolving the issue as fast as possible is the right thing to do. – Martin Modrák Mar 22 at 15:18
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    Actually, @MartinModrák, I'm not thinking of punishment so much as just loss of reputation among people in your own field. – Buffy Mar 22 at 15:51
  • @Buffy - you are right that my wording was not great. But I would say that even a loss of reputation is not a very likely consequence of publishing a flawed paper, especially in the bigger fields where people don't really know each other. Note that it took years before Wansink lost his reputation - and his papers had more flaws than other content. – Martin Modrák Mar 23 at 18:05

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