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My advisor and another student collaborated on a paper, after reading it carefully myself, I've come to the conclusion that the approach is fundamentally flawed and the main result is plain wrong.

As recommended in these instances, I've tried on several occasions to politely frame my doubts as questions and asked for further explanation (instead of directly accusing the paper to be wrong), but my advisor was not able to give me adequate explanations. After talking to the student author it seems pretty clear to me they have little idea what they are doing.

I wasn't sure if I wanted to get in this mess, but my advisor wants me to do some work building on this current approach, which they still seem to firmly believe is correct. However, I cannot build on something that makes little sense. What should I do?

Update: I have shown the error in the paper clearly, I have given counterexamples, however I still don't think I'm getting through. While my advisor does agree there are issues in the paper, I get the feeling that he is still brushing these off as minor issues.

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    For clarification, is the paper already publisher, and has thus undergone peer review?
    – Sursula
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 6:18
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    Is this a paper on applied science, where you try to make sense of recorded data without knowing the fundamental processes behind (i.e. most of geophysics, most of biology, a lot of neurological science)? It is unfortunately the norm, correlation taken as "explanation" with a large dosis of expert judgement (also known as bias). Some biases are more correct than others ;)
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 7:18
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    Is this the kind of paper that can be verified by independent research? Would it be possible to such a verification part of building on the current approach? Possibly on the premise of making the base stronger before you build on it and improving your understanding of the subject in the meantime.
    – Mast
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 20:06
  • I have read a bunch of published papers where I came to the conclusion that the approach was obviously fundamentally flawed. With the benefit of hindsight, sometimes my conclusion was wrong.
    – Peteris
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 21:46
  • Why would you not go to the next highest authority, or invoke the institution's complaint procedure, if. not both? Commented Apr 2, 2022 at 18:39

5 Answers 5

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The first step you should take is confirm that your assumption (the paper is flawed and wrong) is indeed correct. It would not shed a very good light on you if you accused your peers of making mistakes when in fact they didn't. So before going any further, make sure you are right.

Find another (or better, more than one) competent person able to judge the correctness of the paper -- while I don't doubt that you are competent to judge the papers' results, it is always wise to have a second pair of eyes. If the other(s) come to the same conclusion (the paper IS wrong), you can still follow the (good) advise given by others in their answers.

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    This, and then, if another person agrees that a correction is needed, have a meeting with both them and your advisor. Now there is a second, more credible, voice of dissent.
    – Clumsy cat
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 11:39
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    "It would not shed a very good light on you if you accused your peers of making mistakes when in fact they didn't." Verb "accuse" is a little strong here. The OP specifically said that they framed their doubts as questions, not accusations. This is science that we're talking about, not dogma. Questioning and doubting is the foundation of scientific work, not something to be avoided for fear of shedding bad light.
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 14:06
  • For a PhD it is difficult to find somebody to be able to judge the paper independently. They could talk to the advisor and how does OP look if asked by the advisor, that third parties are checking on the paper? I the paper goes into a peer view, the result could confirm OP's doubts, but this could take month to convince the advisor. Too late for OP and his Phd work.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 14:59
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    The paper has to convince the reader. Even with talking to the authors the reader is not convinced. So the paper fails this important aspect.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 15:00
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    @usr1234567 a paper has to convice the peers not just anybody (who might lack expertise and knowledge)
    – lalala
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 18:57
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Keep pushing until you arrive to a point of contradiction evident to both sides. It seems that you have asked some questions and deemed answers inadequate, whereas your advisor and fellow student found them solid enough. Assuming that - what is there to prevent you from demonstrating a clear contradiction of their result, which you claim to be "plain wrong", with some well-established result?

The next stage after asking questions is asking questions with some extra evidence at hand. "Here are 2 textbooks and 15 papers claiming the opposite, and this is how I was taught and what I know about the subject. How can these things simultaneously be true?". Your fellow student might indeed be out of their depth and the advisor none the wiser - we are blessed with having a great tool called the scientific debate at our disposal to sort these things out. It is possible that they are, indeed, simultaneously true - but how would one uncover it if not for asking questions?

If they persevere in their heretical ways even after that, welp, not much you could do. Find a better advisor and avoid dealing with cranks.

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    The question says "but my advisor was not able to give me adequate explanations. After talking to the student author it seems pretty clear to me they have little idea what they are doing." and your conclusion is "you have asked some questions and deemed answers inadequate, whereas your advisor and fellow student found them solid enough". I didn't get that "solid enough" vibe!
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 13:59
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    There are also a number of papers where the results are not mathematically wrong, but the model or the assumptions used are unrealistic, or differ from conventional models from the literature, or are deceptive. Eg, the paper proves "assumption X implies result Z", but the introduction and conclusion from the paper make it sound like this can be applied in situation Y, glossing over the fact that situation Y does not satisfy assumption X.
    – Stef
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 14:03
  • @Stef It sounded pretty clear to the OP that the fellow student had little idea what they were doing. There is no indication this feeling was conveyed to them. Maybe the student does realize they don't know a whole lot about the subject, but they might not realize OP does. Also, while your example is a kind of special failure mode, it is deconstructable the same way: find where, precisely, the discrepancy is. Maybe the authors did not make this assumption but worded it poorly. Maybe they failed to consider something important. Debate!
    – Lodinn
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 13:26
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You consider their paper to be wrong? They want you to write your own paper building on it? Then give them what they want and write a paper which does exactly that:

  1. Attempt to replicate their results / build on them.
  2. Arrive at different results / results which are contradicted by hard data.
  3. Analyze what could explain those discrepancies.
  4. Come to the conclusions that their results are wrong and yours are correct, because they made mistakes which you didn't.
  5. Explain what their actual conclusion should have been.

This is how the scientific process is supposed to work. Bad science getting corrected by better science.

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    This might need to be adapted for a specific field, but is the right approach, I think. In math, the best things are finding a counter example to a result, or finding a better proof. Hard to do, but rewarding. Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:04
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    Even though this is probably the right thing to do in the interest of science, this could lead to quite a bit of animosity which is what OP is specifically trying to avoid. It can be difficult enough when the author you are correcting is far, far away, but when it's your advisor...
    – jcaron
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:50
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Bail out. Say firmly you think the method believe a stronger theoretical approach and you do not have time to commit so much time at this stage of your career.

You are doing a PhD, so you will have chance to publish. Even on the same topic: you cannot correct the current approach of your advisor, but you can show a more meaningful approach.

Keep in mind however that following a certain (correct or wrong) approach is much easier and quicker than lay down a new (correct) approach ... like 3-12 months, I w would say, you know the deficiencies of current approach so you know in which direction you have to look at.

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    Bail out, but instead of doing something related to the unlucky paper, try to move your thesis topic away from it. You still might citing it, but hopefully you can base your work on other aspects of your working group.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 15:05
-1

Write down all the discrepancies the advisor's paper has. Also explain why this approach cannot (or should not) be pursued further. Give this summary to the advisor and tell them politely to read this in their spare time and give it a serious consideration.

I hope they will understand if they want to.

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    "In his spare time"? If I was the advisor and an advisee brought me something like this, I would clear my calendar to read it...
    – alexis
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 13:48
  • One outcome could be, that the advisor is not convinced. Like OP is not convinced by the advisor's paper. Then, what?
    – usr1234567
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 15:03
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    +1 because I like this approach and if I were to receive written arguments in such a graphic form against something I'd written, I would drop everything else and go through it carefully. I couldn't rest until I'd sorted it all out. This may not work in all cases, but it might in this case. The OP can better judge if a hardcopy version of the OP's concerns, juxtaposed point-by-point with the paper will have an impact on the professor where verbal concerns have not made inroads.
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 19:32
  • @uhoh " I couldn't rest until I'd sorted it all out." you clearly did not went through submitting enough papers and receiving back the associated peer-reviews to be completed :D
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 20:03
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    @EarlGrey I certainly know of what you speak, but while it often feels like "running the gauntlet" there's no guarantee that it was a sufficiently rigorous and thorough gauntlet, or even the correct gauntlet. Occasionally reviewers see the something (or someone) they like and elect to save time by reviewing less thoroughly. When the main paper for my (Physics) thesis was published without a single correction or complaint from any of the reviewers I was overjoyed and felt vindicated for taking way too long to submit it. A year later a colleague found an obvious mistake, and I was heartbroken.
    – uhoh
    Commented Mar 28, 2022 at 20:17

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