If I write I paper in which I criticise a view or argument expressed by another author, is it considered polite or customary to offer the author an advanced/draft copy of my paper?

My criticisms are of course at an academic rather than personal level.

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    I wonder in which field this is. As a mathematician, if I find a serious mistake in another paper (like, the main result being false), I contact the author quite immediately and confront them. But again, the "right and wrong" is much clearer for us than for other branches. That's why I wonder... – yo' Feb 20 '15 at 15:34

This seems very field-specific. In some fields -- e.g. philosophy -- "criticizing the work of others" is more than business as usual: it's a substantial part of what all papers in the subject do. (Philosophy is probably the extreme case: though I am far from an expert in this area, I do have some familiarity with it, and my understanding is that a truly correct and unassailable philosophical argument would in most cases serve to show that the problem was not really philosophical at all! This is a field in which the rank and file philosophers of today criticize the golden gods of the past two thousand years as well as each other...and everyone seems pretty happy about it.) In certain other fields there is the sense -- and this can only be meant sociologically without opening up some truly deep cans of worms -- that "right" and "wrong" work is not a matter of individual opinion or belief: it is something that the community as whole must come to an agreement on. For instance, two scholars can happily present rival theories on the meaning of Hamlet or even on its authorship. Two scholars who report inconsistent physical experiments cannot coexist so happily: the community as a whole has a strong feeling that at least one of the experiments must be wrong.

If you are just presenting a rival theory to someone else's in the sense of philosophy or the humanities -- i.e., the community as a whole will have no a priori problem with allowing the two theories to exist and each gain their own adherents -- then it seems to me that this is business as usual and everyone can read about it in the paper. But if you are working in a scientific, mathematical or other field in which the two works cannot coexist simultaneously in the community as a whole, then you are doing something that is potentially much more destructive to the other person. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't do it -- on the contrary, if anything you are more obligated to bring the issue to light -- but I think it would be at least courteous to personally contact the person whose work would be specifically invalidated by yours. On the other hand, whether something is "courteous" is clearly a matter of culture. I think that scientific fields vary widely on whether and how discourteous this practice is. For instance, there are some fields -- e.g. string theory -- in which large numbers of people are working within a very small and rapidly moving space. In this kind of situation, it is my understanding that you just take a good, rapid shot and see how everyone else reacts to it. If on Wednesday two contradictory string theory papers show up on the arxiv, then you know what people will be doing on Thursday: in other words, the community is so automatically and rapidly self-correcting that people think in terms of "good ideas that didn't pan out" rather than "wrong papers". Or so is my understanding anyway: string theory is quite an amazing field to me because it is technically so similar but sociologically so different from my own.

In my field -- mathematics -- the culture regards my publishing a paper saying "Your paper is wrong" as an extreme act to be avoided at many costs. Much better would be for you to publish an erratum/corrigendum/retraction saying "Unfortunately the result I stated before is wrong; I thank [you] for bringing this to my attention." Publishing a paper -- or even circulating a preprint, say on the arxiv -- saying that Author X's work without making any attempt to contact Author X would be regarded by some as being discourteous to Author X. It could also be a strategically poor decision in some circumstances: when this happens, very likely some part of the community will mobilize to figure out "as a whole" who is right, you or Author X (or neither!). This mobilization will probably involve several people having conversations with both you and Author X, to the extent that you may end up talking to each other through other people. It could be more efficient and more seemly to have that conversation directly and privately with Author X. In particular, for better or for worse (and I think it is somewhat for worse) if you publish a paper saying "Author X is wrong" and you turn out to be wrong, then you may acquire a reputation for being a bit of a troublemaker.

Finally, in very technical fields, it is often the case that the unique person who is maximally well equipped to resolve the discrepancy between your work and Author X's is...Author X. So unless you have some reason to think otherwise, availing yourself of this resource sooner rather than later is probably a good idea.

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    By the way, I agree with Alexandros's answer that whether and how well you know the person whose work you're contradicting is in practice a key consideration. If you are at all friendly with this person then I would say definitely send them an email. If you don't know the person even by reputation that makes it harder. – Pete L. Clark Feb 19 '15 at 20:11
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    While I definitely agree that in math you should contact the author directly if you think their work is incorrect, perhaps one should also be cautioned that such discussions do not always go smoothly. So you should try to approach this as politely and nonconfrontationally as possible. (I remember one time I didn't believe an author's proof about the second part of his main theorem, so I politely emailed him about how he came to this conclusion, and after looking at it again, he agreed he had not proved that result.) – Kimball Feb 20 '15 at 4:42
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    @Kimball: I agree completely; you catch more mathematicians with honey. I believe this "maximal politeness" approach has been discussed elsewhere on this site (e.g. by me). – Pete L. Clark Feb 20 '15 at 14:29
  • In the environmental sciences, papers that explicitly criticise other papers (and the inevitable rejoinders) are sometimes published, but are unusual and often an indication that the two authors have some personal issues between them. The rest of us sit back and watch it as a blood sport. – Significance Dec 22 '16 at 2:12

No, you don't have to provide a copy in advance to this individual. It is customary within most scholarly works to point out in the literature review which theories you do and don't agree with, and why. You are not expected to agree with everyone; in fact, agreeing with everyone would indicate a serious lack of critical thinking on your end. It's good that you don't agree, as long as you are able to express it professionally and support your disagreement with a strong counter argument buttressed by sturdy methodology and data.

Finally, it's likely that this individual will be asked to review your article when you submit it for peer review. You can be assured that he/she will rebut your criticisms during the review process, so by the time your paper does manage (if it does) to pass review, you'll have likely had to rework a significant portion of the paper.

If you are submitting this to a non-scholarly publication, then it is likely that the publication itself will provide the author a chance to respond to your criticisms.

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    +1 for the point about the likely reviewer. This happens a lot, so addressing their existing and likely future arguments, methods, and theories head on in your article is important. – Bill Barth Feb 19 '15 at 19:34
  • You are right that "rival" was poorly chosen. I did indeed simply mean someone I disagreed with on a particular issue. I am replacing rival with "fellow academic" – innisfree Feb 19 '15 at 21:36
  • Is there a particular reason my response was edited? – Yasha Feb 20 '15 at 0:51
  • @Jacob If you click on the "edited" link, you'll see the whole revision history, where D.W. explained why they made the edit. – Chris Hayes Feb 20 '15 at 0:54
  • Ah! Fair enough :) – Yasha Feb 20 '15 at 13:57

If I write I paper in which I criticise a view or argument expressed by another author, is it considered polite or customary to offer the author an advanced/draft copy of my paper?

Most certainly not. The other author will have a copy of the paper when it is available after publishing. Contacting him just to show him your published "opposite" paper (especially if you do not know the guy personally) will probably seem weird if not unfriendly. People on one scientific area know when there are other papers a) citing them or b) contradict their previous papers (Google scholar notifications are excellent for this). So, there really is no need for sending a special "reminder" about your paper.

On the other hand, if you know these people personally an email saying "This is my new paper building on your previous work" and "...tell me what you think about it" might not be that bad. Still, it might be better to wait for them contacting you about your work, especially if those guys are more famous and established than you.


I think this depends on both the customs in your field and on you as an individual. I doubt that there is any "unwritten rule" either way. You should do what you think is most beneficial to you.

I myself do always send out manuscripts to people whose ideas I criticize in my paper, and I do this before submitting them anywhere else. My main reason for doing this is to give them the chance to correct me if I have misunderstood their arguments. It would be in no one's interest if I publish a paper with such mistakes - not in their interest, since I would be misrepresenting their research, and not in my interest, since I would be making a vacuous counter-argument. I have also experienced other people sending me their manuscripts for the same reason.

Another reason I send them out is because I have good reasons to think they would care about my paper. After all, they have written about the very same thing.

  • interesting! you contradict a few other answers though. perhaps this depends very much on your field. do you also receive advanced copies of papers that criticize your work? – innisfree Feb 20 '15 at 10:02
  • @innisfree What are "advanced copies"? One reason we do this in my field (or rather, in my subfield) might be because we're overall quite amicable with each other. We can get along even though we disagree. I've learned that this is not the case in some fields. – Sverre Feb 20 '15 at 13:38

In my experience, the expectations depend on the nature of your criticism, and probably on the field you are in. At a broad level, based on what I've seen in my field, I can separate this into two different kinds of situations:

  • A factual dispute. Here, I'm referring to a situation where there is an objective truth. In my field, if I write a paper that says that a technical claim in a prior paper is wrong -- say, an alleged proof had a technical error -- it is considered polite to send an advance draft to the author of the prior paper. This is a situation where there is an objective truth: either the proof was correct, or it was flawed.

    Why is informing the prior author customary, in this kind of situation? First, it's polite to the author of the prior paper; it's a nice courtesy to them, so they aren't surprised and don't feel personally attacked. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it helps get at the truth more efficiently -- which is supposed to be our motivation for doing the science in the first place. For instance, suppose your criticism is wrong and you simply misunderstood or have a mistake in your reasoning; then the prior author may be able to point this out and save you some embarassment. Or, suppose they agree with your criticism and had actually already issued a correction to their paper which corrects the error. Then you can cite their correction. Finally, suppose they feel your criticism misrepresents their views or is not a fair characterization of what their paper was claiming. Then this is an opportunity for you to review whether your criticism is valid (taking into account their perspective) and possibly revise or refine your argument. In each of these cases, everyone benefits: you benefit from having a stronger argument, the prior author benefits from avoiding surprise or invalid criticism appear in print, and the scientific community benefits from getting to the truth of the matter more efficiently. So it's not that you are somehow obligated to inform the prior author, but it benefits you and it is considered polite to let them know as a courtesy and give them a chance to respond.

    Of course, this might well vary from field to field.

  • A matter of opinion. It's a different story when reasonable people could disagree. Perhaps it is a matter of professional opinion or judgement; perhaps we are trying to draw conclusions based on imperfect information; perhaps there are multiple possible answers with complex tradeoffs; perhaps we are making a case for a particular conclusion, but the problem is complex and one could plausibly make a case for the opposite conclusion. This kind of situation might be more common in the humanities, in philosophy, in law and public policy, and other fields than in mathematics and the core sciences, but it can arise in any field.

    In these situations, I would not expect any clear custom or expectation about whether you share an advance draft of your paper with the authors of the prior paper. At least in my field, there is no expectation to share a copy of your paper with the prior authors. Here debate and counter-debate is expected and part of the norm in the published literature.

    So, in this kind of situation I would suggest that you evaluate what to do based on what you think makes sense in your particular situation, without feeling constrained by politeness norms. If you think the authors of the prior paper might give you valuable feedback, you could share an advance draft with them. If you feel that is unlikely to be useful, you could skip it (and you can still share a copy of the paper with them once the paper is published). It's entirely up to you.

At least, this is my experience, in my field. Norms and expectations may vary from field to field, so I encourage you to talk to your advisor, a mentor, or someone senior in your field who you trust.

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