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While flipping through my thesis to look up details in writing a postdoc application, I realized that I messed up my reaction rate quantification of one protein covalently bonding with another on a gel. The error I made here is that I assigned too large an intensity value for an unreacted protein control.

So here's the thing: I've already submitted my thesis to the library and none of my supervisors or examiners caught this mistake. For instance, I had to really pause and look close at the bands itself to notice that the unreacted band was actually smaller in size before going back to review my own work. Now this result was part of a bigger experiment that simply didn't work and will not be published. This was one interesting result that meant to show how two parts of a protein reacted similarly, despite one being heavier. If this result was not there, it would not upend the key conclusion of my thesis, although I would have 2/3 less of a figure.

What should I do at this point? Should I tell my supervisor immediately or file a correction? Or should I just go on with my life with the notion that no one will likely read my thesis? I feel like my advisor is glad to have me out of the lab, but I don't want to be accused of fabricating data years down the line.

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  • Has the degree been awarded? Or at least finalized?
    – Buffy
    Feb 19, 2023 at 14:33
  • I passed my defense, been awarded my degree, but haven't had my graduation ceremony yet.
    – cambelot
    Feb 19, 2023 at 14:37
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/25804/…
    – Dawn
    Feb 19, 2023 at 19:01
  • 2
    If you assume/hope that nobody cares about your thesis, what did you spend the last few years doing with your life??
    – Sneftel
    Feb 20, 2023 at 10:11
  • 1
    Whenever you are tempted to shrug your shoulders at a scientific inaccuracy. Please remember the oil drop experiment. I am not saying that you will be as famous as Feynman, or that your experiment has the same impact but... its worth keeping in mind, that a grossly wrong answer that was published first can take years to fix and cause problems.
    – Questor
    Feb 20, 2023 at 18:53

6 Answers 6

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Not to worry. Things like that happen. Tell your adviser.

Your university may have a way to add a note to your dissertation on file explaining the (small) correction. If so, take advantage of it. If not, count on the fact that it's very unlikely that years from now someone will read your thesis and draw conclusions from this data.

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    Ye, but perhaps someone will read it in the near future and get confused by the error, or even waste many hours assuming the dissertation is correct. It would be considerate to do something about it. If the university does not have any way of adding a note, I think OP should think of another way, e.g. put it on their homepage, or publish the correction as a one-page article on a pre-print server.
    – Oliver882
    Feb 20, 2023 at 9:09
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If it is such a small error, just write an extra piece of paper titled "Errata" in which you describe the error very shortly and what would be the correct thing and put it in the thesis in your library. Alternatively, put it on your homepage. Honestly, if it is such a small error, akin to a typo, no one really cares, but rather expects it to occur. NO single thesis is without these small errors! I would regard myself already as happy, if there would be not more than one of these errors per page, which makes a lot of errors for a 120 page or so thesis. Because that is, what will happen, when you read your thesis again. You will certainly find the next error. And then the next one. And another one too. And so on. So stop reading your thesis! :)

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  • @ Iridium, thank you for your invaluable feedback. I might have to agree with some of the commenters below that it may not be a small typo. I re-measured my bands lately and found that my conclusion, in the text, remains the same but a few points in the graph I displayed as a figure will shift slightly. If it's not as small of an error as you understood, would your suggestion above stay the same or change?
    – cambelot
    Sep 23, 2023 at 6:09
  • Essentially I would still say the same. Science is a human activity. Every human activity produces errors. It is thus nothing special. Scientific papers are not meant to contain everlasting truths. Math papers might be the only exception, but even they only tell you the current state of affairs. Galois did invent group theory, but he possibly would not consider this himself from reading a modern group theory text.
    – Iridium
    Oct 2, 2023 at 13:28
  • Science is in constant development and improvement, either by the author of an article or by his readers following up on his research topic. Today there is too much time wasting about meaningless ethics discussions, when the time should better be spent to create new research instead of always running in circles around old one. Move on. Let history clean up the messy parts. You did your best, at this special place and time, now do something new. Try to learn from your errors and instead of correcting them try not to repeat them in the future. That's enough.
    – Iridium
    Oct 2, 2023 at 13:28
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I am a bit worried that your response to having made an invalid assumption is to think:

should I just go on with my life with the notion that no one will likely read my thesis

What did you just spend the last 4 years (or more) of your life doing? Your thesis topic is (in theory) the culmination of years of work learning how to apply the scientific method rigorously. If your hope is that no one will read it.... What have you done with your time? Most of the professors that I know in biochemistry post doctorate work, and into the majority of the career was related to the work they did in their thesis.

Why am I worried about this?

2 Reasons.

  1. What have you been wasting your life on that you hope no one will read your thesis? It should be a major accomplishment that you are proud of, that will help you as you start your career as a scientist.

  2. As you apply to your first job with a PhD, Every single person you interview with will want to talk about your thesis work. It is the capstone of your PhD.

When you talk to them about your thesis, which do you think sounds better? "I made a mistake in my thesis, but I assumed no one would notice it and am glad that it is over. You should hire me because that is what I bring to the table... A person that makes mistakes and hopes no one will notice".

Or "While going over my PhD thesis, after it had been accepted by my universities library, I realized that I had made a mistake. And I then went thru the (however challenging process it is) to file a correction. I am not perfect, but I am honest, I admit when I am wrong and fix my mistakes." It becomes a talking point that you can use when someone asks you "Have you ever made a mistake and what did you do?"

What am I saying?

I don't want to be judgy... But I worry that your question was "Should I hide the mistake I made, or not" instead of "How will this mistake effect me/ what can I do to mitigate the impact it has". It makes me worried because one of these is an ethical question: Should I be dishonest and hide a mistake I made... Or should I not. And one is the question of someone who made a mistake and wants to know what they can do to mitigate the impact it has on their career.

At the end of the day, making a mistake on your thesis, while it would have been better to not make a mistake, is not a big deal. You followed your schools process and multiple people looked at your paper and didn't see the mistake. You are at the start of your career no one expects you to be perfect. But ignoring the mistake and hoping that no one will notice is a big deal... I can guarantee that your thesis will get at least cursory glance by anyone who is really interested in hiring you as a postdoc.

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  • 1
    Thank you for your thorough comment. I just want to point out that "go on with my life with the notion that no one will likely read my thesis" is something that many former lab members and non-scientists suggested I do. I never said I agreed with that, nor is that my default mindset. If it was, this post would not exist. I was only trying to show the different opinions I have received thus far in order to set the context for this lively discussion.
    – cambelot
    Feb 22, 2023 at 1:24
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If I were you, I'd "take control" of your thesis by uploading the source files (assuming it's in a text-based source format like LaTeX) to GitHub or similar, put a label on the version that got published by the institution, then make a new commit with the corrections and put a description in a CHANGES.md file. Get the issue out in the open - this won't be the last time you make a mistake in public, and dealing with it openly & honestly, but not necessarily making a big deal about it, is a good habit to get into.

You might need to make sure you have the right to publish your own work like this, by the way, by checking with your institution.

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  • 1
    I like your idea. In a time when living documents are the norm, and global inter-connectivity grants us information instantaneously, I was surprised to read OP's question. In the world of software (and by extension in our daily lives), patches are released regularly and there are processes for keeping everything up-to-date. I don't see why academia can't adapt as well. :-)
    – Mentalist
    Feb 21, 2023 at 2:03
  • @Ken Williams I don't really have my own website and my thesis will be embargoed for some time. I'm not entirely sure this option is possible.
    – cambelot
    Feb 22, 2023 at 1:29
  • @cambelot the first issue isn’t a problem, a site like GitHub is free and would be all you need. The second issue may well put the kibosh on it, of course. Feb 22, 2023 at 3:44
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There are definitely provisions like this in place at all academic institutions. This is especially the fact that your error is NOT A TYPO but a CHANGE IN VALUE which means a slightly different outcome, as you pointed out will reflect in the figure - the others on here have not recognized the type of error, but just dismissed it as trivial.

DON'T assume that no one will read it or just let it fly and hope for the best is a good attitude given the TYPE OF ERROR - as explained above

Now that you have noticed the error, write it down and what the new outcome would be had the error been captured. Then formulate this in a correction to thesis (ERRATA) section as an appendment, and then speak to your ex-supervisor to get the course of action needed to fix the submission.

Doing this is a better course of action, especially if you're planning a post-doc position that relies on credibility and honesty of academic research. period!

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  • Thank you for your insightful comment. How soon do you think I need to reach out to my supervisor to put up this errata, especially if my thesis is currently embargoed? Would you say sooner the better or when this piece of data is needed for publishing?
    – cambelot
    Sep 23, 2023 at 6:02
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Thank you all for taking time to offer your insightful feedback. I've re-measured my bands more carefully this time and found that while a few points on my graph will change slightly but the conclusion I wrote in the text is not at all affected. So if I were to issue an errata, it would just be for the graph in the figure itself.

While some of you here have encouraged me to be proactive in reaching out to my supervisor, some of my friends with PhDs suggested I leave it for now, as the thesis is under embargo, and bring it up to my advisor when/if this figure will be published in a peer-reviewed journal. While I am genuinely concerned about how this may affect my career and want to mitigate any harm, I have heard people say that very few people read thesis and focus on published journal articles instead. What do you think of taking this approach? Does it matter when I reach out to my supervisor (i.e. asap vs. later)?

I'm not too sure what it will take for me to add an errata, but I'm not sure if my supervisor will overreact or if this may cause some drama in a department that he has already left. Please let me know your thoughts.

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