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I'm curious about the correct way to cite a paper which is flawed when I publish in academic journals. In the past I've added annotations to the bibliography (or included text in the main article) stating what the problem was. But now I wonder if instead if such annotations should sometimes start with "The authors have been notified that...."

The reason is that I have encountered a professor who shamelessly fails to issue errata for mathematical errors and (worse) also fails to issue errata when overlooked prior work (not mine) completely scoops her weaker results by 25+ years. (The weaker result has eclipsed the older one, drawing on the order of 100 citations.) More recently, I found that she has another article failing to cite a similar article proving a similar result, and she failed to issue errata for mathematical errors in 3 of her papers.

Her lack of citation case wasted a month of my time. (I wrote an article improving upon her paper, only to find my manuscript was still weaker than the original she failed to cite.)

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    Is it standard in your field to issue errata when one accidentally overlooks prior work? – ff524 Jul 2 at 15:35
  • I personally have published errata in such instances, since it seems dishonest not to. Worse, in her case she was a hazard for other researchers, since somebody was going to come along and improve upon her paper without realizing the improvement had already occurred before she even published. – J Tyson Jul 2 at 15:38
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    This seems like more of a rant than a real question (one hint is that there is not a single "?" character). You're also misusing the term "scoop" – Bryan Krause Jul 2 at 16:01
  • She was "scooped" because she published a result which was a special case of a stronger result in the first instance, and the second case she published a result which was already published. I'm not sure why you consider this to be a nonstandard definition. Maybe a question mark would be required to indicate that I'm asking what your definition of "scooped" is. – J Tyson Jul 2 at 16:49
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    The term "scooped" is usually used to describe the situation where two researchers are simultaneously working on the same thing, and one publishes before the other. In this case the other researcher normally finds out as soon the first researcher publishes. The term is not usually used for the case at hand, where the earlier work was published long before, and the later researcher was simply unaware of its existence. – Nate Eldredge Jul 2 at 19:00
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If the paper duplicates or rediscovers earlier results, you can simply cite the earlier work together with the new one.

All splines are reticulated [Smith 1963; Jones 2008].

Or if only the earlier paper is really relevant, you can cite it alone. But if the Jones paper is commonly cited in this context, and you don't cite it, a reviewer may wonder why. You can of course explain why you don't want to, but it may cause more friction between you and the reviewer than you want. Or, your apparent unfamiliarity with the famous literature in your field may, in a borderline case, cause your paper to be rejected before you have a chance to explain.

If you feel strongly, you can say something like "The work of Smith is often overlooked, but is particularly significant because blah blah blah...". In other words, you can promote the work of Smith if you don't think it is as widely known as it deserves, but don't explicitly put down Jones.

If a paper has an error that is relevant to what you are discussing in your paper, then describe it in the text.

It was shown by Jones that every snark is a boojum [Jones 2008]; note that Equation 4.16 in that paper contains an error, where X should be replaced by Y.

I do not see any reason to mention that the authors have been notified. The reader will presume that you did so, because that's what any sensible academic would do. If the authors didn't do anything about it, you can take it up with the journal if you feel it's really important; but I think it's unprofessional to use your paper to passive-aggressively shame them.

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    Or more pointedly: "Smith proved that every snark is a boojum [Smith 1963]." and then in a footnote: "Jones has claimed an independent proof of the same result [Jones 2008]; however, his proof appears to be flawed." – JeffE Jul 2 at 21:03
  • "a reviewer may ask why it was omitted" isn't a reason on it's own. Actual reasons (which indeed a reviewer might give) would be that Jones' paper is easier for modern readers to understand or that it is useful to point out the relationship between Smith's and Jones' work. – John Pardon Jul 3 at 2:17
  • @JohnPardon: I edited to explain why I think this is a concern. – Nate Eldredge Jul 3 at 3:54
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I think one should always cite the original proof of a result, if you can:

This result is due to [Author1 1950].

Older papers are often difficult to read though, and if there is a more recent source which your readers may be more familiar with or find easier to understand, I would say that can and should be mentioned as well:

For a modern treatment of this result, see [Author2 2018].

If this more recent source does not seem to be aware of the earlier proof, it may be reasonable to write something like

(A weaker version of) this result was rediscovered by [Author2 2018].

But before you write this, be absolutely sure that you are correct that Author2's result is a special case of Author1's, and absolutely ask someone more senior in the field (who knows the history and the personalities involved) whether what you are writing is indeed correct and appropriate. On the other hand, don't let anyone convince you to write in such a way that gives Author2 credit for Author1's theorem (if it is indeed Author1's theorem).

There is no need to include remarks such as "The authors have been notified that . . .". However you still should notify the author (for one, they may convince you that their paper does not in fact have an error---there is no short supply of badly written papers which seem to have mistakes but in fact are easily correctable).

  • Not sure you got the question right. In OP's situation, [Author2 2018] is a worse paper than [Author1 1950] and proves a weaker result. Why cite it at all, let alone claim it to be a modern treatment? Also, in mathematics at least, there is no urge to cite original papers from the 1950s; that sort of stuff has often found its ways into textbooks already and few of the authors are even alive. – darij grinberg Jul 3 at 6:17
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Just cite things based on your best knowledge. I wouldn't try to run some campaign to fight bad papers, though. You will get too distracted from your main topic, to show your work.

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The reason is that I have encountered a professor who shamelessly fails to issue errata for mathematical errors and (worse) also fails to issue errata when overlooked prior work (not mine) completely scoops her weaker results by 25+ years. (The weaker result has eclipsed the older one, drawing on the order of 100 citations.)

In this case, you don't need to cite the new (weak) work at all, unless it has other advantages.

More recently, I found that she has another article failing to cite a similar article proving a similar result,

That's a fairly benign case of not having read enough. Just cite her paper and write "(see also [similar article] for a similar result)".

and she failed to issue errata for mathematical errors in 3 of her papers.

This is trickier. If you depend on any results of hers that have incorrect proofs, you can point out the errors and how to correct them in a footnote after you cite them, or you can even include complete proofs in your paper if the error is sufficiently deep (the standard language to use is along the lines of "In Appendix A, we shall give a [streamlined / more accessible / corrected] proof of Theorem [number]", but make sure you still credit the original author with the rough ideas of the proof; e.g., "The proof follows an outline given in [original paper]"). An alternative way, avoiding the airing of dirty laundry in the refereeing process, is to post errata on your personal website (just make sure the website is going to stay up). This has the advantage that not only the readers of your paper find it; but it has the disadvantage that the readers of your paper will probably not find it unless you cite your errata. Finally, another alternative is to ever-so-slightly generalize the result if possible, which gives you a legit reason to include the proof without side eyes from the referees. None of these ways is guaranteed to completely avoid any bad blood, but this isn't something you can avoid when working in a field with a "publish first, think later" tradition.

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