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What are the appropriate limits when criticizing the previously published work of others that you're citing in a paper? Are there limits with respect to maintaining decorum and decency?

  • Good guidelines for this issue can be found in the following style guide: redbowlabs.com/~ali/words.html -- it is directed at a machine learning audience, but I think the recommendations are fairly universal. – Aaron Aug 10 '12 at 23:36
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    The field makes a huge difference here. In philosophy, if you're not criticizing previous works, you're probably doing it wrong. In some friendlier sub-fields of biology, you are expected to phrase your criticisms as extensions and insights. Also, the more data-driven the field is, the less it matters what you say either way. – Rex Kerr Aug 11 '12 at 20:26
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    I agree with @RexKerr that the field makes a big difference. I see far more explicit criticism of prior work in (theoretical) computer science than in mathematics, even though the fields are quite close and some of the same people (including me) work in both. – Andreas Blass May 18 '14 at 20:43
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Generally speaking, any critiques should be brief and directed (i.e., "the cited works failed to consider <X> in their analysis", "to simplify their model, they assumed <X>, whereas in reality <Y>").

If you're criticizing assumptions, be sure to specifically state which assumptions you challenge, and clearly deliniate (with references) why they are incorrect. Note that many papers use incorrect assumptions to begin work in a new field, and your critique should recognize that (i.e., "The seminal paper assumed <X> [1]. We extend this work by removing said assumption.")

If you're criticizing conclusions, again state specifically which conclusion you disagree with, and be sure to provide data/analyses to back up your conclusion.

If you're challenging their data, note that (in neuroscience, at least) this is perfectly common; findings differ all the time. Progress often stems from finding the cause of these differences between data. You should note the difference and mention something along the lines of "Our findings differ from those of <X> [1], and we believe this is because <Y>". Note that it is almost a requirement to mention something like this; if you don't, (1) the researchers whose paper you missed will probably mildly insulted, and (2) people familiar with the field will assume you didn't do your basic literature search, which makes you look stupid.

Needless to say, ad hominem attacks are always inappropriate and should never appear in scientific literature.

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    I agree, especially with the last sentence. I have seen papers use very mild language such as "[X] stated this as a theorem without proof, and yet the following counterexample shows why this statement is false." My favorite is: "[X]'s paper is identical nearly word-for-word to [Y]'s paper." – Joel Reyes Noche Aug 8 '12 at 23:52
  • Could you add a section re:criticizing their methods? – Please stop being evil Nov 10 '15 at 19:30
  • @thedarkwanderer - Honestly, I'm not familiar with many instances of that occurring. From what I've seen in neuroscience, statistics, and signal processing, new methods will almost always be published as a standalone paper. The method paper may contain some data, but the point is to emphasize that the technique works. As such, those methods are INTENDED to generate response. If you think they implemented a method incorrectly, I guess you would just say that, although that sounds kinda like a rookie mistake that you would hope the journal would catch. – eykanal Mar 11 '16 at 1:57
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I think that simply by thinking in terms of "criticism" you have already gone too far. I try and point out what the previous work has done and demonstrate how my work builds on that. Things like reducing the number of assumptions, doing additional analysis, or using a better method, don't require you to criticize the previous work.

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    I disagree with the first sentence: criticism is in itself a valuable activity, for the community at large and even for the original author, and explicit criticism should be encouraged, rather than making people try to read between the lines. However, you're right that gratuitous criticism is a bad thing, and the examples you mention should not be framed as criticism. – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 9 '12 at 13:11
  • @AnonymousMathematician thinking about your comment made me realize my working definition of criticism is flawed. Looking up criticism on Wikipedia, for whatever that is worth, made me realize that criticism is not necessarily as negative as I thought. – StrongBad Aug 9 '12 at 14:03

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