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I have just read a recent paper in a well-respected journal. The work is technically sound and the results interesting. However, the authors comment their main results as unexpected and “extraordinary” (in the abstract and in the text), while it is an instance of a very generic and well-known phenomenon, which has been experimentally confirmed (and theoretically explained) in a large range of systems in the last decade. The author do not seem aware of the literature on this phenomenon.

Now, I am somewhat conflicted between two courses of action:

  1. Raising the matter with them privately, making them aware of the literature they have missed so that they do not repeat the mistake, and telling them (nicely) that their claims of extraordinary behavior are not valid.
  2. Doing the same thing, but through a formal “Comment” published in the same journal. This does not only bring the matter to their attention, but also to other readers of the journal. Right now, I favor this option, because I think it improves the scientific record.

The journal in question does publish comments, its policy on the matter is the following:

These are a medium for the discussion and exchange of scientific opinions […] For publication of a Comment or a Reply, they must be judged by the referees to present new insights and be of interest to our readership.

Moreover, a Comment in the journal will necessarily include a “Reply to the Comment” by the original authors, as per journal policy.


So, how do I choose between contacting the authors in private, or submitting a formal “Comment” to the journal? What factors should guide my choice?

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    Why can't you do both? Contact the authors first, discuss with them, and publish an official comment afterwards, that can potentially include a comment from the authors. – user102 Sep 17 '13 at 14:22
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    @CharlesMorisset a formal Comment in the journal will necessarily include a “Reply to the Comment” by the original authors, as per journal policy. I will add that to the question. – F'x Sep 17 '13 at 14:29
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    @F'x there is also option 1.5: put the comment on your blog. This way your insight is not locked in email, and you promote open science. – Artem Kaznatcheev Sep 17 '13 at 19:10
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    @ArtemKaznatcheev I don't have a blog, and even if I had (or if I upload it to my website), the readership would be much smaller than that of the journal itself – F'x Sep 17 '13 at 20:02
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I believe that these two choices are not mutually exclusive.

Authors should be given the benefit of the doubt. Contact them privately first, to see if they are aware of your concern, and if so, whether they have a reasonable response. You should say, in that first contact, that you think it's enough of a concern that you're preparing a formal comment to submit to the journal. Perhaps it's a bit too nice, but I would rather be allowed the opportunity to publish my own comment or even a retraction, rather than being publicly "called out" without warning.

However, I believe that if your faithful attempt to privately contact the authors fails—if they do not respond within a reasonable amount of time, or they blow you off without a satisfying explanation, or they say that they'll do something but don't—then you should move onto publishing a formal comment.

I agree that something needs to be put into the public record, and the sooner the better, but it doesn't need to be so quick that you don't even attempt to contact the original authors. Everyone should get the benefit of the doubt.

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There is nothing stopping you from contacting the authors directly. In fact that might be polite. It may, however, be unfruitful. Submitting a comment is not considered less polite than contacting the authors directly first. Remember, the authors have, in your view, published poorly referenced/researched work (reviewers and editors are partly also to be blamed). By writing a letter/comment, you perform a scientific debate where you wish to correct a problem with said paper and that is clearly within the realm of what we can and should do as scientists without feeling impolite.

Before you do anything you should perhaps solicit colleagues to discuss the matter over. Since the results have been published, some form of publication discussing the problem must also appear in a publication. It is for this reason you should carefully discuss the matter, start writing a "letter to the editor" of the journal where it was published. The letter should contain the information that puts the "novelty" in perspective. Under such circumstances the authors will have the possibility of a rebuttal which typically is published at the same time as your letter, it is their opportunity to "defend" themselves. This is what typically is done.

Now several things might happen, for example, the authors get angry, the editor refuses to publish your letter. This is why you are better off not being alone behind anything you write. If the letter is refused, then publish it elsewhere. But, remember, the point of writing a letter is to set the faulty perspective of the paper in a more correct one so that the paper is not taking credit where not credit should be had. Do not stray from this endeavour.

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I'll add here, for the record, what I ended up doing. After reading the advice here, and discussing with a few close colleagues, I decided to write and submit a comment, without first discussing it with the authors.

The reasons behind the choice are the following: I assume good faith on their part, and that they simply didn't know that the phenomenon they observe, and which might seem counter-intuitive, is actually a specific manifestation of a quite common behavior. They didn't know the literature well enough, or didn't realize it; at least two reviewers also didn't realize that. Thus, it is really good to “educate” the community on this, and publishing a comment in the same journal appeared to be the best aim to achieve it.

The reason I didn't contact them privately first is two-fold:

  1. They will get the well-polished comment for them to reply, through the editor. A journal editor who is a friend of mine suggested that she (as editor) would prefer to see all communication go through her, rather than come at a later point and have to “referee” a dispute he hasn't seen half of.
  2. If I wrote to them first, and they then wanted to write a correction to the paper themselves, I couldn't be sure exactly what they would say, and my message as relayed by them could be less clear than what I intended to say.
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  • +1 For having asked the opinion of an editor. – XavierStuvw May 10 at 12:48
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I would advice you to be careful. Not citing other sources is quite common in the academia as a mean of making your result look more innovative, more important, and more appealing. Then, if you tell these researchers "Oooooh, I know your dirty tricks!" (even if you do it in a polite way), they might feel offended and could probably take revenge when they come across one of your manuscripts as referees.

I understand your frustration since I often come across papers like the one you mention, written by reknown researchers and published in important journals, while they are basically reinventing the wheel. I have also come across papers where the authors do not cite their previous extremely related papers. C'est la vie.

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  • What you describe is academic dishonesty, and (at least in my experience, in my own field, in top venues, etc.) is not very common in the blatant form you describe. At the very least, I would not at first assume that this is what was going on, but rather that the authors' were genuinely unfamiliar with some relevant literature. – Aaron Sep 18 '13 at 17:10
  • @Aaron I would be very surprised if there is an area where this doesn't happen at all: Lima beans are cooked everywhere. But I am glad to see you still have hope for the human race. – Jean Paul Sep 18 '13 at 18:27
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    I have no reason to suspect that it is done in bad faith: this is a decent team from a related field, and as far as I can see this paper is their first in my own field. – F'x Sep 20 '13 at 9:48

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