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Some years ago, I was the primary author on a paper in which some of the work was performed by a grad student. At the time I did not notice an error in his work, and so the derivation provided in the paper is incorrect. I contacted my coauthors, included the (former) grad student. The other authors readily agreed to have their names on the errata paper, but the former grad student disagreed and feels that his work was without error. And so he said that he did not want his name on the errata. Contacting the journal that published the original paper, the editor is not willing to publish an errata paper in which the author list does not include the entire list of authors from the original paper.

So I'm stuck. I'm quite certain about the error, and frustrated with the former student's insistence on being correct. But now there is no way to get the errata into the literature. The journal editor suggested perhaps publishing the changes as a "comment paper", but comment papers are only allowed if written by someone other than one of the original authors. So that's no help either. I can publish the errata on ArXiV, but many readers of the original paper will never find it.

Does anyone have suggestions on how to get this correction into the literature?

  • This seems like very strange behavior on the part of the editor. This was the editor in chief? – Corvus Apr 28 '15 at 21:54
  • Whatever it is, if you are sure that there is an error in the paper, I think it is an "intellectual duty" to correct it. – optimal control Apr 28 '15 at 22:10
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    I also agree that the editor is behaving unhelpfully. The erratum could be published if the authorship were disjoint from the original list or identical to the original list but not if it is a proper subset? That doesn't make much sense, and it is not a good implementation of the journal's responsibility to publish accurate work. How about this: you could suggest to the editor to publish the erratum as a comment paper under a pseudonym. That's the sort of suboptimal but legal suggestion that might help him regain contact with reality. – Pete L. Clark Apr 28 '15 at 22:19
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    @PeteL.Clark just discovered another use for publishing under a pseudonym :-) I'm not fond of the approach since it sure looks a lot better if the errata are published by the original authors, than by anyone else. If you do choose a pseudonym, make sure it is obvious that these are the same authors. – Wolfgang Bangerth Apr 29 '15 at 3:12
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    @Wolfgang: Publishing an erratum under a pseudonym would be an awkward thing to do. My point was (i) it's better than publishing no erratum at all and (ii) apparently it's legal, and this may be the absurd conclusion that shows the editor the nuttiness of the journal's policy. – Pete L. Clark Apr 29 '15 at 3:51
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I'll give a few options that occur to me.

  1. Talk to the editor. Essentially ask him what to do. On the one hand he has a policy he wants to follow, and on the other hand he presumably wants corrections of erroneous papers to appear. After all, the alternative is that someone points the error out in a different venue, and the whole community laughs at his journal. Perhaps he will be willing to bend his rules a bit.

You will need to discuss any possible solution with the editor, anyway, so you may want to start out with the most obvious option.

  1. What's to keep you from writing something titled "Erratum" with the whole list of authors X, Y and Z, but with two sections "1. The Erratum (X, Y)" and "2. A dissenting point of view (Z)"? Yes, of course we want a paper to have a unified message, but in this particular case, I'd say that getting the word out in any way is better than burying the discussion under mounds of policy.

  2. Propose that you write the erratum, but allow the dissenting author to comment on the erratum and explain why he thinks the erratum is erroneous. Then send both the erratum and the comment out to review and see what the reviewers say.

  3. Perhaps you can do the discussion under point 2. above on the ArXiv, but publish an "erratum" with the full author list that does not discuss the error but only points to this discussion on the ArXiv.

One bonus for options 2-4: actually writing up these papers will force everyone to really think about the derivation in question, and either you or the dissenting author may change his mind about whether there is or is not an error.

Option 1 puts the onus on the editor, who may not be very flexible, judging from your question. (Of course, we don't know what he would say.) Options 2-4 are pretty "meh", and involve getting both the editor and the dissenting author on board. So given that these three options involve convincing two people, anyway, it may be worthwhile to look at other solutions involving communications.

  1. How deeply have you discussed the putative error with the dissenting author? It may be easier to convince him that there is an error than to convince both him and the editor to collaborate on a "solution" nobody is happy with.

  2. How sure are you that in fact there is an error? I'd assume the dissenting author is not completely out of his mind, so perhaps he does have a point?

Options 4 and 5 really involve taking the time to discuss the issue in depth with the dissenting author. I'd recommend doing this in person, if at all possible, not via email or the phone. And do this one-on-one with the dissenter, not together with all the other authors - if he perceives everyone else "ganging up" on him, he may become defensive.

Approach this with an open mind. Maybe there is a simple misunderstanding, and the two of you are really thinking of different things when you think you are talking about the same thing. Often you will learn a lot from this kind of discussion. In the best possible case, you will find two different ways of looking at the issue, and maybe even the germ of a follow-up paper.

  1. If all else fails and the editor is in fact an associate editor, you can always escalate the issue to the chief editor.
  • Thanks for the excellent suggestions! The discussion between myself and the former grad student have not been heated in any way. I sent him my detailed mathematical derivation, and he claimed that he "didn't have time to read through it" (now that he works in industry) and to check its results. And so he asked that I not use his name on the errata. – nzh Apr 29 '15 at 13:52
  • That is a valuable piece of information. Have you included this in your correspondence with the editor? – Stephan Kolassa Apr 29 '15 at 13:54
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    First I'm going to put some more pressure on the former student and make sure he understands what he's doing, and that I'm going to publish the errata online one way or another whether he wants or not. It's only a matter of venue. Here I can also mention your suggestions of ways to get this published. And if he agrees to none of them, then I will have little choice but to name him directly as blocking the errata when I place the errata on ArXiV. Anyone who is willing to pollute the literature deserves some shaming. – nzh Apr 29 '15 at 14:01

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