(Preface: I'm just an undergraduate, so none of this actually matters; it just seemed an interesting case study.)

About years ago, a lab published a very unexpected result (in, I should add, a predatory journal).

Last year, another lab produced some evidence to support the paper (in, I should add, an even worse predatory journal, which doesn't matter except that they might not have heard of some of the issues in peer-review).

I failed to replicate the original results. There seem to be some subtle but serious issues with the original paper that might explain this; but I don't intend to publish this rough work. In particular, the method used in the original work is notorious for false positives.

I recently found out from funding reports that the other lab is still working on the phenomena and are probably done with their data-taking by now.

Is it even remotely good practice to send a quick email to the other lab with concerns?

(I wouldn't be concerned about bad work in C- journal, but this has some recent relevance.)

  • 3
    I don't think this question is actually about ethics. Feb 21, 2021 at 5:34
  • 7
    Just to put things into perspective: Anything published in predatory journals is essentially ignored by the scientific community. Feb 21, 2021 at 13:54
  • 1
    I edited your question a little bit (although user2's comment is totally correct). Can you clarify what concerns you want to email about? That you can't replicate, or that they had published in a bad journal? Feb 22, 2021 at 16:28
  • @Azor Thanks for the edits: I kind of liked the disclaimer being first, so I changed that back, hope you don't mind.
    – 0xDBFB7
    Feb 22, 2021 at 17:09
  • I'm not sure why you think you being an undergraduate doesn't matter, but whatever Feb 22, 2021 at 17:10

5 Answers 5


It would be fine to contact them and say that you tried X and would like their help figuring out why you did not get result Y.

Assuming you are right and they are wrong might be considered rude by some people.

  • 5
    @ZeroTheHero Many academics ignore all their emails, but good ones do not. Good academics care about undergraduates. They are the future of research. Feb 21, 2021 at 5:43
  • 7
    You are conflating two issues here: one is caring about undergraduates, the other is caring about cold emails by undergraduates claiming your research results are incorrect when another lab has verified them. Feb 21, 2021 at 5:45
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    @0xDBFB7 your first step must be to have your results validated by someone with experience with this kind of experiment/analysis. The odds are against you being right, but the odds are not 0. Unfortunately to stake such a claim you must be bulletproof. Feb 21, 2021 at 5:50
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    @ZeroTheHero There is no such thing as bulletproof science. Not that I'm sure we are talking about science. Your comments border on insulting towards undergraduates. Assuming the question is wrong is inappropriate. Feb 21, 2021 at 8:42
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    I must admit I don’t understand your reply to my comment. Of course you can be bulletproof: if your analysis and results are understandable and repeatable by others, you are there. Credibly challenging reproducible results is NOT easy, and the OP is now no longer challenging the initial result but also the confirming result. Feb 21, 2021 at 14:25

Whether a researcher has an ethical obligation to act is field dependent: I know no field that requires a researcher to reveal their research beliefs; researchers are ethically free to keep their research private. (Perhaps with some exceptions which demand disclosure to the state. And some well-defined contexts, e.g., human experimentation, as noted in a comment.)

Researchers may feel they have a moral obligation to share. Email is appropriate for an informal, under-developed idea; a technical report for a more formal, better-developed idea; and a peer-reviewed publication is appropriate for formal, developed ideas. (Draft reports/submissions can be shared by email.)

When emailing peers, I recommend positing that your theory must be wrong, because it contradicts the work of peers, and that you must have made a mistake. You can then ask where you are mistaken, where you have misunderstood their results.

In seeking clarification, rather than raising concerns, surely no one can fault you.

  • 1
    It can be indeed be unethical to not share research. From the World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki: "Researchers, authors, sponsors, editors and publishers all have ethical obligations with regard to the publication and dissemination of the results of research. Researchers have a duty to make publicly available the results of their research on human subjects and are accountable for the completeness and accuracy of their reports... Negative and inconclusive as well as positive results must be published or otherwise made publicly available." Feb 22, 2021 at 14:00
  • @NuclearHoagie What's the context [in which results must be...made publicly available]?
    – user2768
    Feb 22, 2021 at 14:07
  • 1
    It's unspecified, but that could be a manuscript or conference proceeding or any form of publication. This document isn't legally binding or anything, but lays out the ethics of doing research on human subjects. It would be unethical to conduct research on humans subjects and then just keep all your data and findings locked in a filing cabinet forever. Feb 22, 2021 at 14:20
  • @NuclearHoagie +1 I've edited my answer to note.
    – user2768
    Feb 22, 2021 at 15:27

Referring to @ZeroTheHero's answer ("an email alert from an undergraduate would instantly go in the trash and/or spam"); if you are working under the supervision of someone else, even nominally, it would be a good idea to run your issues by them first, for two reasons:

  • you might be mistaken, a more senior person in your field might be able to confirm or disconfirm your results fairly easily;
  • politically, it would be a good idea both to get a more senior person on your side (you might even ask them to make the first contact), and to avoid dragging someone who is supervising you into a potentially sticky political situation without their knowledge.

I’m sorry to say that unless your own results can be verified through peer-review and you can explain why you cannot reproduce the original result but another lab can, an email alert from an undergraduate would instantly go in the trash and/or spam.

  • 4
    Peer review does not verify things. Proper science does not discard data based on the rank of the scientist. Feb 21, 2021 at 5:35
  • 2
    @AnonymousPhysicist Proper science should not but an undergraduate sending such an email has very low credibility, and yes peer-review does verify things such as procedures, analysis and conclusion. Feb 21, 2021 at 5:40
  • 1
    Actually, this is a good point, I think. Emailing someone directly sidesteps peer-review. That seems pretty bad in general, and I'm glad you brought that up.
    – 0xDBFB7
    Feb 21, 2021 at 5:41
  • 2
    It is just matter of wording. A student can ask for an opinion/help. It seems to me that being the concerned papers both in predatory journals we are not speaking of good academics nor interesting results. OP should do what s/he think is of interest, perhaps consulting a supervisor, and that is. The probability that something worth of thinking about ended up in predatory journals is low.
    – Alchimista
    Feb 21, 2021 at 10:51

(Sincere apologies if this bumps the post back to the frontpage - perhaps it should have been an edit).

I just came across this blog article by Andrew at Columbia, might perhaps be some particularly interesting persepective for anyone stumbling across this question, especially considering the goldmine of discussion in the comments.

Setting aside the weird specifics in this question, the notion of emailing authors directly about their work seems to be a surprisingly divisive (and, frankly, awkward and unpleasant) issue even among the real professionals. For example:

You write that it would be a downside if the original authors show the criticism to be incorrect. No, that would be an upside! If I’m wrong, I’d like to know as soon as possible. The downside is the potential for an unpleasant social interaction, for example getting a nasty email in reply. I’m not saying it’s rational for me to want to avoid such a downside; it’s just the way it is. It’s my impression from reading Nick’s post that he feels the same way.


Besides, making authors aware of criticisms isn’t only about incentivizing better research, it is also about incentivizing accuracy in criticisms.

Two alternative routes to email that weren't discussed here, but might be useful to mention for posterity:
1. Asking a question on the article's PubPeer page might be a more or less offensive option, depending on context.
2. It may also be useful to note that journal editors are still (for now) able to act as effective go-betweens nowadays, especially to prompt formalizing discussion into "Comment on:" articles - which has the advantage of being registered in the scientific record, and usually includes a high-quality "author's reply" section.

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