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I am considering submitting a response to another scholar's paper. While I assume it is always best to first approach the journal in which the original article was published, is there a "best-practice" for notifying the original scholar that I am responding to him? I do not want to catch him unaware or to anger him--especially since I am not acquainted with him, but will be contributing to a volume that he is co-editing.

Advice would be appreciated from people who have done this before. If it matters I am in the philosophical+theological fields. Thank you all!

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    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:36

4 Answers 4

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You're doing the right thing in wanting to alert the person in advance. What I prefer to do, and something I have appreciated when it's been done to me, is to send the person in question a draft of your paper and ask if (s)he thinks you have represented their view fairly, and/or if there's something you've misunderstood. If they have reasonable objections, it will give you the chance to improve your paper and avoid embarrassment by falsely accusing someone of something in print, when it was really just your misunderstanding.

What you should not do is to publish your reply without notifying the author you are replying to whatsoever. I have also experienced someone writing a reply to me without the author or the journal notifying me about it, and I didn't appreciate that at all.

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Don't be confrontational or accusatory

Just state clearly and professionally your concerns regarding their paper, don't let emotions get the better of you.

But, at the same time try to offer some explanation as to why you think the work in question is incorrect. If you just say "This is incorrect" without something to back up your claim it comes off as arrogant.

For example, "I believe Author A made a mistake here because their experimental apparatus has a potential design flaw here that might not have been taken into account".

If I released a paper and received a response worded like that, I'd be angry at myself for making such a mistake, not the author of the response whatsoever. If anything I would thank them for pointing it out so I can revise it.

But first, try and contact them to discuss your concerns and if a response is actually warranted.

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  • "I believe Author A made a mistake..." is itself possibly offensive to the author. It is, actually accusatory, contrary to your thesis.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:10
  • It is technically an accusation but if you'd taken into account the rest of that sentence you'd see it wasn't simply an accusation. Nowhere does it accuse the author of actually making a mistake, simply that the reader who is responding believes there could be a mistake. Its intentionally vague to leave the possibility that either party is incorrect. "Author A made a mistake, their experiment was incorrect", is a lot more accusatory and squarely blames the author for making a mistake.
    – ChellCPlus
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:34
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To try to improve a bit on the answer of ChellCPlus, let me suggest that you make your comments about the paper, its methodology and conclusions, and not about the author(s).

Say something like "The error/difficulty arises from a potential flaw in the experimental apparatus...".

If you can point to a better path to the result, do so, but, again, don't make it about the author. Don't say "The author might have done better to ...". Say "A better result might come from ...".

Make it about the paper, not the author(s).

Mistakes happen. They happen to all of us. Focus on the mistakes, not the person who made the mistakes.

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  • Yes, I try to take the non-personal approach in many things, including giving feedback to students and doing code reviews.
    – Peter K.
    Commented Jun 24 at 13:44
  • Spot on, explained it better than I did.
    – ChellCPlus
    Commented Jun 25 at 13:54
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First, understand you risk upsetting the other author regardless of reality (you might be on-base or off-base with your viewpoint and that does not matter, some people are more prone to holding grudges). Second, understand the norms and conventions of your field. Don't be afraid to ask mentors, senior scholars, or peers in the field what people usually do and what are tradeoffs to different courses of action.

Now, to provide an answer rather than caveats: is there a "best-practice" for notifying the original scholar that I am responding to him?

A simple polite email to the author may be appropriate (depending upon the subject area), something like

Subject: (Recent paper title)

Dear Professor Smith:

I found your (recent article title here) interesting. I think points A, B, and C can further be clarified/refined (or other diplomatic terms). As a courtesy, I'm letting you know that I am writing a reply note to (journal title here).

Respectfully, ...

Some fields and authors would find this courtesy appropriate, others may not. Also, if the person is powerful and adversary, they may use the heads up to try and block your paper. My advice is based upon a professor in grad school who noted a simple call could defuse a lot of tension and animosity.

Some successful researchers such as Andrew Gelman and Daniel Kahneman try to reach out to people with different viewpoints to reach consensus and collaborate. Hopefully, you can embrace this view as well. Gelman has a recent article on this topic you may find helpful, Criticism as Asynchronous Collaboration: An Example from Social Science Research (the PDF is current on the funding agencies webpage. Kahneman has lecture on this topic that may be worth listening to as well.

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