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As second-year bachelor students, we “validated” a scientific paper from our university. We took the raw data, evaluated it independently of the original paper, and then compared it back to see if there was a difference. It had recently been presented at a conference but has yet to be published in a journal. The task was assigned as part of our course project work. We were more successful then we imagined: We found rather large errors in some of the calculations. This was very satisfying for us, although probably less so for the people who wrote it.

It was a fair bit of effort and we worked more than the other groups. Each group were assigned different papers or projects, i.e. nobody else was working on the same stuff. It was not compensated or anything being university coursework. We hinted at the problem to the authors weeks ago but only submitted our work the other day.

Disclaimer: I am completely inexperienced/unknowledgeable in this academia thing. I might be completely off here.

This has lead me to wonder however:

  • What will happen to the conference proceedings in questions? The paper with mistakes can still be found online.
  • Can (or should) we expect any credit for our work when they correct their paper? I know people acknowledge help with, say, a novel or computer program, but does the same principle apply to finding a problem in a scientific paper? Our would this have been caught in peer review later?
  • Certainly not saying we are going to do this, but do people publish counter-articles to papers with corrections?

The field is aerospace engineering.

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    "It had recently been presented at a conference but has yet to be published in a journal." - what field are you (and the paper) in (and, related to that, are there even plans to publish it in a journal, or was that conference paper supposed to be a final product standing for itself, which is well possible in some fields)? – O. R. Mapper Jun 14 '15 at 19:10
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    @O.R.Mapper The field is aerospace engineering. I was told by one of the authors they wanted to publish it later this year in a journal. – RebeliousInterlectual Jun 14 '15 at 19:13
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    @MikeFoxtrot, do you think there will be any merit in the work once your group's findings are taken into account? – aparente001 Jun 14 '15 at 20:52
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    "We took the raw data, evaluated it independently of the original paper, and then compared it back to see if there was a difference ... We found rather large errors in some of the calculations" As devils advocate, what have you done to make sure the errors weren't in your calculations? At this stage you know there is a discrepancy, but how are you certain they made the error and not you? – user20640 Jun 14 '15 at 22:27
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    @LegoStormtroopr the experimental result now more closely matches the theoretical result. We were also able to replicate their results, find their mistake in interpretation and describe it. – RebeliousInterlectual Jun 14 '15 at 22:32
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The very first thing you should do is notify the authors that you found errors. This serves two purposes:

  • Gives the authors the chance to correct their results and publish an erratum to their paper.

  • Gives the authors the chance to rebut your arguments in case it is you who is wrong. Since they are obviously familiar with the work they might be aware of something you have missed. It would be very embarrassing for you to publish a Comment pointing out a problem that doesn't exist.

Be extra careful and polite when notifying the authors about the error and give them the benefit of the doubt. If you are helpful they would and should acknowledge your help in the erratum or revised paper. Since you said they are going to submit the work to a journal it could be that they even offer coauthorship.

They might choose to ignore your comments or, if they disagree with them, not take any action. In that case you can submit a Comment to their paper, write to the editor, or write a paper yourself with the correct result. Some authors have a hard time acknowledging mistakes and some editors might be unresponsive about wrong results that have already been published, so you might hit a wall or two along this road.

Again, whatever you do, make sure it is not you who made a mistake before making any claims.

  • Thanks for the answer, you are indeed correct in that we should not overrun them and act with respect. I clarified my question; we have stayed in touch with the authors remotely and hinted at our discoveries. We have not published our stuff in any way, we just sent it back and explained why we thought it was wrong. I was wondering what were the implications of this would be, since we are fairly sure we are correct. – RebeliousInterlectual Jun 15 '15 at 8:08
  • @MikeFoxtrot The implications will strongly depend on the authors' response and how bad the error actually is. If the authors agree with you, the usual thing to do would be to publish an erratum. If they don't, they could ignore you or if you try to press the issue there could be some back and forth with the editor in the middle, to complicate things. You would have to decide if it's worth going down this road. The best advice is: ask your professor. – Miguel Jun 15 '15 at 10:47

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