What do academicians need to keep in mind when they are conversing with a fellow researcher whom they do not think highly of? I was reminded of A Beautiful Mind, where Nash (Crowe) says the following:

I imagine you're getting quite used to miscalculation. I've read your preprints... both of them. The one on Nazi ciphers... and the other one on nonlinear equations... and I am supremely confident that there is not a single seminal or innovative idea in either one of them.

This is as forthright as it could possibly get! Suppose there is a situation where you have read a paper in some detail, and are sure that it is not just worth its salt. If you happen to strike a conversation with the author about the work itself, how do you go about it? How do tactful researchers react to this situation?

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    By the way, I find that there's very rarely any awkwardness in talking with the researchers themselves, unless they are aware of your feelings and push you to explain. Instead, the difficult situation is when a third party asks you what you think of some work. Even declining to comment can be interpreted as a opinion, and whatever you say may be misunderstood and then reported to others, so you need to tread very carefully. – Anonymous Mathematician May 18 '12 at 12:10
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    Tact: telling a person to go to hell and making them feel happy to be on their way. – zzzzBov May 18 '12 at 14:40
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    I misread the title as "Etiquette when talking about a researcher whose work you do not think highly of", and expected to find a question on how do do polite smack-talk in academia. I was thoroughly disappointed. – evilcandybag May 18 '12 at 17:17
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    "Your work fills a much needed gap in the literature." – Joel Reyes Noche Mar 20 '13 at 2:47
  • Be polite. There's nothing to be gained by being a jerk. It's funny in the movies, but do people really say things like that in real life?
  • Be diplomatic. State initially that you do not fully understand the approach or the motivation, and then after some discussion state that you do not fully agree with the approach taken.
  • Be succinct. Point out clearly what you see as being the problem with the paper.
  • Be constructive. Indicate places where you think the paper/research could be improved, with concrete suggestions of how you would make the improvements.


  • Avoid the topic. Talk about the football scores instead. What about those Bears?
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    I note that "Be honest" is missing. – Raphael Aug 16 '12 at 8:57
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    Deliberately so. – Dave Clarke Aug 16 '12 at 10:06
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    That's disturbing. I want to be able to tell people what I think, even if it's bad. More importantly, I want people to tell me if they think my work is lacking. How can we improve otherwise? Honesty does not contradict the items you list, imho. – Raphael Aug 16 '12 at 10:36
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    Honesty contradicts diplomacy. I'm not saying to say that their work is great if it is not, but don't say it is crap if it is. This may require you to say that it is "interesting", even if it isn't. Realistically, you cannot just go around telling people that their work sucks and how it could be better, even if it would improve it. – Dave Clarke Aug 16 '12 at 10:42
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    @user13107: That's not a valid logical conclusion. – Dave Clarke Mar 20 '13 at 5:59

"Thank you for your useful contribution to the field" seems to be a popular opening in such cases.

And as it might be you, rather than the author, who's got it wrong, then proceeding by the Socratic method can be both tactful and constructive. Start with establishing common assumptions, focussing on those areas where you think the mistake starts: "So I think you started by assuming XXX - have I got that right?" Then continue asking questions, stepping through their methodology, giving them an opportunity to either contradict themselves, or to clear up your own misunderstanding.

Failing that, there's the altogether briefer: "Thank you for your useful contribution to the field. Oh, please excuse me, there's someone over there I've been trying to catch up with for some time, and I must catch them now, while I can".

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    Having written this in the public domain, I do wonder how long it will be before it's said back to me – 410 gone May 18 '12 at 8:55
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    Thank you for your useful contribution to the question asked. – DBUK May 18 '12 at 12:11
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    Be warned: this is basically the "well, bless your heart" of the academic world. – grauwulf Mar 20 '13 at 1:39

To understand that a paper is wrong can be much more difficult than that it is right. You might simply not get an idea or it could be badly written, or with rather a typo than an error.

  • "Could you explain me the main idea of your paper?"
  • "How can it be related to other research, ..."

or more technically

  • "I don't understand how does X imply Y, could you explain it to me?" (*)

or if it is about the general approach/philosophy

  • "Personally, I prefer loop quantum gravity to string theory."

If there is a plain error, there is no reason to hide it. (Otherwise you would value tact over truth, which is IMHO a very bad approach to science.) But still it can be done politely, perhaps using (*).

Rants are rarely successful at anything.

Moreover, judging quality or impact of a work is risky.

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For a published departure from conventional scientific professional etiquette, see the survey article “Mathematics and the Internet: A Source of Enormous Confusion and Great Potential,” in which Walter Willinger, David Alderson, and John C. Doyle criticize scale-invariant network models of the Internet. The article is unusual for its polemic, insulting tone. While it is not unusual for researchers to insult other researchers in private conversation, it is unusual to see this in print. Its authors spare no opportunity to criticize their competition, as well as mathematicians and physicists generally, whom they regard as foppish, insular ivory tower aesthetes, whose nostrils are unacquainted with the bracing scent of an expertly soldered electrical connection.

The authors deploy a literary reference to insult their competition:

“What about replacing power-laws by the somewhat more plausible assumption of high variability in node degrees? While the answer of the scale-free modeling approach consists of tweaks to the PA mechanism to enforce an exponential cut-off of the power-law node degree distribution at the upper tail, the engineering-based approach demystifies high-variability in node degrees altogether by identifying its root cause in the form of high variability in end-user bandwidth demands (see [33] for details). In view of such a simple physical explanation of the origins of node degree variability in the Internet’s router-level topology, Strogatz’ question, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “… power-law scaling, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” [52] has a resounding affirmative answer.”

The authors seem to suggest by this literary reference, which would not be lost on readers of the AMS Notices, that a model of the internet that predicts a power law node degree distribution is a “tale told by an idiot.”

The authors suggest that mathematicians and physicists must get their hands dirty, do some engineering and then contemplate the authors’ HOT models of Internet connectivity, which they assert, will be more mathematically interesting “… and certainly more relevant and hence more rewarding than that of the scale-free models of the PA type.” This sentence combines a dubious claim about what mathematicians should find interesting with a swipe at scale-free preferential attachment models of the Internet.

The authors conclude with these remarks:

“In this article, the Internet has served as a clear case study, but the issues discussed apply more generally and are even more pertinent in contexts of biology and social systems, where measurement is inherently more difficult and more error prone. … Although the Internet story may seem all too obvious in retrospect, managing to avoid the same mistakes in the context of next generation network science remains an open challenge. The consequences of repeating such errors in the context of, say, biology are potentially much more grave and would reflect poorly on mathematics as a discipline.”

Why would mathematics be at fault? The authors do not cite the literature on the independent history of debate over the applicability of power law models in biology and the social sciences, e.g., A Brief History of Generative Models for Power Law and Lognormal Distributions by Mitzenmacher.

Again I mention this as an unusual example in print of what appears to me to be a departure from conventional scientific etiquette.

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  • Ah, mathematician insults. They truly fill a gap in the offensive lexicon. – user51101 Jun 13 '16 at 20:27

To add to other good answers: I'd try to avoid "engaging" on such an issue, either directly with the author or with a third party. Anything else risks being interpreted as either being an overt jerk, or merely a passive-aggressive jerk. Only when you are a big-shot of some sort can you perhaps "get away with" being a jerk. But these dynamics are much more reminiscent of grad-school common-room wrangling among first-year grad students than of collective working toward a common good. If you must say something (because you think that others are being disserved by bad work being mistaken for good), I'd advise being extreeeeemely apologetic, and not sounding sarcastic when you say "I'm sorry, I don't understand how ..." and then "Ok, maybe I'm just being dense, but I still don't see..."

Perhaps the interpersonal model that would keep you out of trouble best would be the mental image of a student of yours who has made a large mistake, but with good intentions, and whom you hope to steer back to something more sensible ... or else discover your own error ... but in either/all cases without alienating anyone.

Indeed, here, again, the situation is that you stand to profit by the errors or failings of competitors, so, although on one hand your judgement may be expert, and, thus, trustworthy, on the other hand you have some incentive to be hypercritical, and, thus, mistrusted.

And other parties have some motivation to "stir the pot" just for recreation, so... watch out.

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I'm having trouble understanding why a conversation with someone whose work you don't think highly of should be all together different than conversations with others. Sure you may disagree with their work, but unless you are a real leader in your field remember that someone is looking down on your own work (and probably even if you are a leader!).

I've found most academic types to be cordial and get along fine. There are a few "rough" people that seem to bark a lot and act rude towards others, but they get a reputation pretty quick. You don't want to be that person, especially young in your career. Call me naive, but I guess I believe that what goes around comes around.

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This could be tangential, but as an Associate Editor of a reasonably good journal, I once received a note from one of the authors:

Reading your comments I found that there is a clear gap between your understanding and mine on what has already been in the literature, and what makes the contribution of the paper. I made multiple changes following your comments. But I did not follow those that are out of context.

with a personal email stating that

I also never have experienced so much misunderstanding by either reviews or AEs in the history of my submissions.

on a paper that I gave my own review before sending it to other reviewers. So sometimes a rather strong language is being used. This particular author has published upwards of 50, may be close to 100, papers, which is a lot by the standards of the discipline we are in.

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