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A professor of mine gave me a paper, because he wanted to show me the kind of work that we might do together in future. It is the advance access version of the paper, but I've found some errors, like typos, and wrong references of some figures in the text. Should I warn him about those things? If so, what would be the best way to do that?

Update

  • I'm from Italy, but I would love to know about other different cultures as well, especially USA;
  • My professor is very open minded, nice and easy-going;
  • Let's put it this way: if I was a computer I wouldn't understood the meaning of the figures because the references in the text don't match with the right plot, but since I'm human being I've understood that he meant the other figures.

I believe that pride is less important than the truth, especially when it comes to scientific publications. I mean, everyone can be wrong, there is nothing bad about it in my opinion. But I know that not anyone think the same, so I've asked this question because I wanted to know if it's worth to risk what @littleScala pointed out, to spread higher quality articles around the world and to show meticulousness in reading the paper.

Basically I thought:

  • Maybe a professor could be nicely impressed by such a level of attention;
  • What if he find its own errors? He might think that I didn't read the paper with caution.
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    What is an 'advanced access version', is the paper published or not? – Cape Code Jan 6 '15 at 16:34
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    @CapeCode I meant "advance". The paper says "<Research field> Advance Access published <Date>" so I believe that it has been published. – Aurelius Jan 6 '15 at 16:39
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    True story: As an undergrad, I proofread a paper about work done by a visiting Japanese post-doc and my American-born advisor. I told my advisor: "Hiro's English just isn't good enough. You're going to have to rewrite the paper." My advisor's reply: "I wrote it." – Ellen Spertus Jan 6 '15 at 18:09
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    @espertus you can't leave it there, what happened next? – Wizard Jan 7 '15 at 9:37
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    One point to keep in mind, beyond etiquette: pointing out typos in a draft provides proof that you actually went through it, at least superficially. It can be positive at least in this sense. – a3nm Jan 7 '15 at 17:38
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Ask him. It sounds like none of the errors is serious so if your question is just one of etiquette, all you need to say is that you think you found a few typos and little mistakes in the paper and ask if he'd like a list.

If the final version has already been sent to the publisher, it's probably too late to fix that, though there's the opportunity to correct small typos when reviewing the galley proofs. In many fields, people put their papers on their web page, too, so he'll probably appreciate the opportunity to fix that version, even if the version in the journal is already set in stone.

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    +1 for correcting galley proofs: many journals now make a paper available as soon as it is accepted, but it may actually be many months before it is finalized. – jakebeal Jan 6 '15 at 16:41
  • A sidenote: If some of the errors are of a systematic nature, the professor might be interested to avoid them in future paper. (Still, etiquette when asking applies.) – Wrzlprmft Jan 6 '15 at 16:57
  • Regarding galley proofs: some publishers (ahem ACS) occasionally make a mess of papers when transitioning them into their in-house publication system. This could explain a mismatch between figure numbering in the text and on figures. – semi-extrinsic Jan 8 '15 at 15:05
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I don't know where you're writing from, but it would be perfectly fine for you to say something here in the US. I know etiquette varies with culture, though. If one of my students came to me with errors in my papers, I might be sheepish, but certainly not offended. On the other hand, if it's already published, and the errors don't affect the content or the point, there's probably not much of a reason to point them out. You'd be hard-pressed to find a paper that doesn't have at least one typo.

7

Yes, but ask in the form of looking for an answer. How does this work? I don't see how this piece aligns this way, or this formula looks transposed incorrectly, is it?

4

I'm sure they could have had it proof-read by many people if they wanted. He gave it to you as an example of the work you might be involved in - not in order for you to correct. There's no need for you to bring these issues to his attention, but keep it in mind when you write your papers - have it looked over by others even if you think it's perfect.

If you can't resist, though, don't ask us - ask him. I'd make it a short throw-away question that's part of a larger discussion about what he really gave you the paper for:

"Thanks for the paper, I see that you've researched/studied x and shown y. It looks like the next direction is z, or possibly a, or b. I'm interested in... " ... have the discussion with him that the paper is intended to start..."...Thanks, this was a useful discussion. Oh, by the way, I noticed a few minor issues in the paper of a purely editorial nature. Maybe it's too late to send corrections, but if not are you interested in having me mark it up?"

You aren't criticizing his work - in fact you just spent a great deal of time discussing it with him, hopefully in a positive light. You are offering your help in improving the presentation of the work. If he declines, no problem. If he accepts, go ahead.

Keep in mind that you may, however, be seen as volunteering to proof-read all the work he is involved with, and later that may actually become a burden you don't want to have.

3

There's a balance to be maintained.

First, I always assume grammatical and spelling errors to be matters of style and typographical errors. Clearly if someone has typed "teh" or "peaked" it should be noted. But otherwise, use the red pen to note style and readability.

But when someone more learned than myself makes claims I as a student would contest, it's better to frame that discussion as, "Could you explain to me why...?" Certainly the most expert among us make errors. But on both sides, it's more likely to be caused by ignorance than intention. As the mentor I might not have encountered a scenario that raises questions; as the student, likewise. So many, although one may be certain in a claim, frame it with a subtle doubt as I just did.

Beware though of your own hubris attacking someone else's pride. The professor can make a mistake and be grateful you politely advised them privately. Likewise many students are eager to raise their hand and say, "That's wrong!" only to invoke the ire of public humiliation as the professor either tactfully acknowledges their statement or more often suggests they engage in further research and report their findings.

2

Definitely no.

I did the same and it did not go down well. Smiles yes and thanks, but after that we had a bit of an icy relationship.

This nearly cost me my M.Sc.

Don't!

  • Please, can you explain a bit better your experience? – Aurelius Jan 7 '15 at 21:24
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    Sure. I pointed out some little errors and for my troubles I was met with sarcasm for the rest of the academic year with remarks like "oh I'm sure you know better than me" and "are you sure you didn't make a mistake here?". My point is you NEVER know how the other person will take it no matter how friendly they seem. We have an old saying in the UK originating from Lancashire.. "There's nowt as queer as folk". It's worth bearing in mind! – Hi Lo Jan 7 '15 at 23:38
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I would wait until you are actually his student. At this stage he probably has lots of potential candidates and it's important that he sees you as friendly and easy to work with.

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