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I found some minor mistakes in a paper published in a top journal. The mistakes do not affect the results of the paper but may confuse some readers as I was confused at first. I think it is better and more ethical to email the authors and inform them. I have two questions:

  1. Should I inform the authors or the journal editor?

  2. I need to contact the authors to ask some questions about the paper and request them to provide me the codes of their work if possible. Could informing the authors make them unhappy and prevent them from contributing me? As a whole, could informing the mistake have a negative impact on our future collaboration?

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    Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/48639/68109
    – GoodDeeds
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 23:14
  • Thanks dear @GoodDeeds. The post you linked can partially answer my first question.
    – Atena
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 23:37
  • Search on here, your question 2 has been answered before.
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 5:27
  • 3
    You have described this as unimportant. Go do something important instead. Commented Jul 25, 2020 at 12:17
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    Are you going to use their method? Then write your own improved version of the methods section and help others to understand it. As an author I would not bother to fix minor mistakes in a published paper, if you understood the paper even with these mistakes I'm sure others will too.
    – The Doctor
    Commented May 14 at 9:08

2 Answers 2

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Should I report two minor mistakes found in an academic paper to the journal editor or authors of the paper?

The politeness requires that the authors are contacted in any case. Whether the editor should be involved and to what extent depends on how "minor" are mistakes:

  • if they are really minor (typos or more serious, but not affecting the conclusions of the paper), that is they do not warrant any changes to the manuscript, there is no reasons why the editor/publisher should be involved. Keep in mind that the authors may be already aware themselves of these mistakes.
  • in some cases the authors may want to publish an Erratum (many journals have this option, linking it to the principal paper) - if some results are incorrect or a credit was not properly given, etc.
  • Finally, if the mistakes are serious and you believe that they should be corrected, but the authors do not agree to do this or do not disagree with your own conclusions, this may warrant publishing a Comment and presenting your point of view. Again, major journals are providing opportunity for publishing a comment on an article, but will typically require that the authors are notified and given an opportunity to rectify their paper themselves. Anyhow, the authors will likely be given opportunity by the editor to read your comment before it is published.

Finally, journals usually outline their policies regarding such mistakes - see, e.g., the Physical Review Letters policy on Comments:

In general, each Comment is sent to an author of the subject Letter and one (or more) of the following responses is requested.

  1. The Comment seems appropriate for publication without a Reply.
  2. A Reply to the Comment is submitted for possible simultaneous publication. (Submission of the Reply Comment later in the Comment review process may be reserved as a future option instead.)
  3. The Comment does not seem sufficiently relevant to the Letter; a detailed discussion is enclosed.
  4. The Comment does not appear to be scientifically valid; a detailed discussion is enclosed.

The author of the Letter is not asked to review the Comment as an anonymous referee. The editors will consult an independent, anonymous referee if they deem it useful in determining the suitability for publication of the Comment (and Reply, if any). In any transmission, the Reply or the reaction of the author is not treated anonymously.

(emphasis is mine)

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Most authors are very happy if someone reads their work carefully. As long as you are tactful in bringing up the mistakes, it should not affect their willingness to work with you in the future. Of course, it's easier to be tactful if you already know them, so probably the best idea would be to write first to express how interesting you found their paper, your desire to build on it, and asking for their code. Then, once you've had a nice back and forth email exchange you could bring up the potential errors. It sounds like the errors don't really affect the main results, but the authors might like to know about them so future readers are not confused.

The linked thread discusses how you can send such an email. I've found it's usually best to express my confusion and ask "is this what you meant?" That way, if they meant something else, they can tell me, and maybe there's a way to read the text that was written so that in fact there's no error. Or, once I've drawn their attention to the relevant part, then they can realize the error themselves and will want to write to me to explain what they really had in mind. Most authors are very sympathetic to a reader who is genuinely trying to learn from their paper. What you want to avoid (that might make authors defensive) is a "gotcha" vibe.

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