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A Nature paper published in 2000 currently has around 400 citations, but there is a mistake in the paper and surprisingly, still it gets citations. The mistake affects the result of the paper in a way that half of the arguments in the paper are invalid.

I warned the authors two years ago and they confirmed the mistake. I expected them to put some announcement that there is a mistake in the paper to avoid misleading researchers, but unfortunately they have not done so.

How should we address these situations? Should we send a comment and report it to the editor? Is it rude? Or should we simply dismiss it because it is an old paper?

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    I cannot add comments yes, so this by no means is meant to be the actual answer. Have you tried contacting Retraction Watch? Alternatively, a more direct approach would be to contact the editor and outline the reasons you believe there is an error, including proof of your communications with the authors, admitting they were incorrect. – I Heart Beats Sep 30 '14 at 15:03
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    Are the authors are reluctant to take action? If so, does this bother you? If it seems that your ideal outcome is not possible, perhaps either you need to let it go (you did mention that the publication is old) or to take action yourself so it can be off your chest. Have there been publications that essentially corrected the original paper with their new knowledge? – I Heart Beats Sep 30 '14 at 16:53
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    Why they are not publishing an erratum? It is the best way to do it. – user22412 Sep 30 '14 at 16:56
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    One option: correct their method, redo the experiment, prove them wrong, publish the results in Nature and collect the "job, promotion, and more research funds" that you mentioned in your comment. – Cape Code Sep 30 '14 at 17:06
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    @Jigg, Sounds great, but I am theoretician :( and the experiment needs quite advanced facilities. – O_o Sep 30 '14 at 18:45
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Some journals accept a type of short correspondence or comment in which objections to some published material can be submitted. If you can articulate your objections in a scientific way suitable for publishing you may try this approach. For example, imagine the original analysis has some error. Reanalyzing the data gives different results and invalidates the previous publication. Conversely in this approach the authors of the original study have the opportunity to reply to your complaints.

An example of this is a commentary published in Nature Genetics, where the authors highlight important deficiencies in the design of the experiments in an earlier publication that can lead to incorrect conclusions. Of course, the authors of the original paper are allowed to respond to the comments.

Correspondences have the advantage that can be very short. I am not sure at this moment if Nature also accepts this format.

If the material that demonstrates the error in the original publication is substantial it may grant an additional publication. This is for example what happened with the paper that demonstrated the divergence between human and mice inflammatory responses, which led to a response paper analyzing the same data, and arriving at the opposite results.

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  • Thank you, good examples. What about the fact that the paper that I have mentioned published 14 years ago?! Does anyone feel it is pointless to comment on such an old paper? Gravedigging! – O_o Sep 30 '14 at 16:25
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    @S.A.: I guess "old" is a relative term. In my field (mathematics) a 14 year old paper would be considered pretty recent. "Old" would start at maybe 40 or 50 years. – Nate Eldredge Sep 30 '14 at 18:44
  • @NateEldredge, You are right, mathematics never ages! but natural sciences are ageing too fast until they mature really well. I should ask editor to force the authors to write the erratum. – O_o Sep 30 '14 at 19:14
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    I think the fact that is an old paper should not be considered. If the paper is highly cited and people still cite the paper then it means it has a significant impact. If the impact is based on some wrong conclusions then it is important to point that out. I would say it is ethically the right thing to do. – ddiez Oct 1 '14 at 5:06
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    A related comment. If the paper is old, chances are that someone else has tried to replicate the experiments or the conclusions. So far no one has been able to find anything wrong? It is possible that even with their mistake their conclusions turned out to be correct... – ddiez Oct 1 '14 at 5:08
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In addition to the excellent suggestions above, I'd also suggest blogging about it. A recent study found that corrections to the literature were 8x as likely to occur if blogged about, as opposed to corrections that had gone the traditional route (contacting editors, authors, etc).

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  • Very interesting; the web is so frightening! – O_o Sep 30 '14 at 20:07
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    In this case I would say the web is a good thing. It means wrongdoers cannot hide because everyone will know what they did anyway. Well, the problem would be when there are false accusations... – ddiez Oct 1 '14 at 5:10

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