Is there a good practice of citing (or not) a paper or preprint that you consider flawed (or at best - totally incomprehensible)?

Once I had a problem of that sort. I wrote a paper on a topic, which was not very popular. Even if I was not using other's results directly, I wanted to cite a few papers solving very similar issues.

Then I had a dilemma if to cite a preprint tackling the same problem, using methods I don't understand (with a feeling that it is incomplete, flawed or just extremely badly written).

Ii that case it is better to:

  • simply drop it,
  • cite but make it explicit that you are just mentioning it, not using their results,
  • or cite making it explicit that you have serious doubts on its content?


By a preprint I understand sth which is archived on arXiv or sth similar.


in what follows, I'm assuming you're correct in your assessment of the flaw.

The first step is to communicate with the authors. If you mutually resolve the flaw (they accept the mistake, and/or redo the proof), then you either cite the corrected version or mention when citing the paper that it has a flaw and cite your discussion with them as a personal communication.

If the conversation with the authors stall (they're nonresponsive or shift the goalposts), then you can cite the paper and briefly outline the flaw in an appendix (or if you're space constrained, post a brief link to a document available elsewhere). I'm not entirely happy with this last idea, but I can't think of anything better in a space-constrained scenario.

I don't think that incomprehensibility is a good reason for not citing, or citing negatively. You'd have to narrow down the incomprehensibility to something in particular that the authors are not clear on (a definition, a set of cases, or something like that). Again, this should be a last resort if the authors are not responsive to contact - ideally, matters of lack of understanding should be resolved between the authors without it making it into the paper.

post-caveat: my answer deals mostly with theoretical papers. In more applied works, it might be trickier to determine whether something is "known to be incorrect" or "not known to be correct".


To reiterate some other points: to my mind, citation (or not) is not about approval or endorsement, but simply acknowledgement of prior art. (I am in mathematics... in the the U.S., ...)

It is unfortunately true that most "peer-reviewed journal articles" are not at all scrupulous about acknowledging competitors' work. Nevertheless, if the question is about what one should do, one should acknowledge competitors, even if they've failed to reciprocate, and probably never will.

(Sadly-amazingly, a very good mathematician once told me that he scrupulously avoided looking at the papers of his competitors, so that he could in good conscience never cite them. One might think that he was joking, but, based on the citations in his papers, he was not.)

The issue of "non-canon" papers, e.g., arXiv and so on (for math, in the U.S., this is still slightly non-canon) I think is really the same, at least in the future. Sure, having editors approve and a referee or two approve is something positive... but, srsly, folks, if something serious of my own depends on it, I will want to have checked it through myself. For that matter, in recent years the requests for refereeing I get mostly say that it is not the referee's responsibility to certify correctness (!!!???!!!)... Whoa. Or, even if they do, that's only one other person... who very possibly has nothing on-the-line if the paper turns out to have a problem, in contrast to oneself, needing to depend on it.

That is, even before the internet and on-line archives, it was not truly feasible (or safe) to rely upon "refereed" journal articles. The main distinction between them and "preprints", in those days, was that people at universities did have access to the "published" (both literally and figuratively), but probably not to preprints, unless one had personal connections. This was why it was important in those days to go to conferences.

In particular, the alleged distinction between refereed and unrefereed (please, let's recover from burdening "published" with a special meaning so contrary to current reality) has become tenuous. Anything that is quasi-stably publicly available is "published", literally. If at a reputable site, by reputable authors, it is ordinarily taken seriously. Even if it is deeply flawed, it should be taken seriously, and acknowledged.

The subtler question is about language in one's own document to refer to other documents... that one may perceive as flawed, as pernicious, etc.


I understand that this may depend on the field.

I would personally avoid citing that paper if I am not very confident and there are plenty of other better references in the subject. I'd rather avoid introducing noise to the review process...

I once had a similar situation and didn't have many other references available. I wasn't being able to reproduce the results of one paper, and the other was really badly written. The first thing I tried was to contact the authors to clarify my concerns. Since neither responded, I decided not to cite them. In my opinion, it's the authors' responsibility to ensure the results are reproducible and it's clearly reported if they expect to be cited.


I would never cite a pre-print except possibly as "personal communication". In fact, that is how authors have asked me to cite their pre-prints. If it is not published, it is not a part of the cannon. That's what publishing is about.

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    Maybe we don't agree about what "preprint" means. If it means a paper that is publicly circulated before publication, then anyone who makes use of it is ethically required to cite it, with full details (i.e., not just as a personal communication). If the paper is not being circulated, but is just a working draft being kept private by the authors, then the situation is different, but I wouldn't consider that a preprint, just a draft. – Anonymous Mathematician May 12 '12 at 11:52
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    @JoannaBryson I couldn't disagree more. First, in my main field (quantum-ph) citing (arXiv) preprints is a widely accepted practice. Second, it may be true that on average papers are of better quality than preprints; however, I don't think it is a good practice to rely on the authority of the referees, instead of judging by oneself. Third, discrediting preprints means both a substantial delay in the scientific communications and backing up the closed access science. – Piotr Migdal May 12 '12 at 12:33
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    I don't see peer review as playing any role in deciding whether to cite something. If you are just citing it as related work, then readers can decide for themselves what they make of it (possibly based on its preprint status), and there's no need to make an explicit assertion in your paper as to whether it's correct if you aren't sure. On the other hand, if your work really depends on someone else's preprint, then hopefully you have carefully checked everything you are relying on. In that case, you don't need to trust in peer review, since you've verified it yourself, which is even better. – Anonymous Mathematician May 12 '12 at 13:41
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    @AnonymousMathematician: Don't you mean "<authors> <title>, preprint, <date>, <url>"? – JeffE May 12 '12 at 15:04
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    @JeffE: Good point - occasionally someone circulates a preprint without putting it on the web, but of course one should always cite the most stable and accessible location to find a copy (e.g., the arXiv is better than the author's home page). – Anonymous Mathematician May 12 '12 at 15:39

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