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I am currently working on my masters thesis in mathematical biology. The work I am doing extends previous work by introducing new biological findings that are relatively recent.

Initially the plan was to take the models in an early paper in the field, reproduce the results, and apply my extensions. But, after a fair bit of work I discovered an error in a model which was bad enough that I couldn't continue to use it as a basis for further work.

This paper is significant in the field (lots of citations, good journal, respected author etc, etc). The error I spotted does have a significant effect on some parts of the analysis. But, to be perfectly honest it's not exactly a world shaking discovery - the original purpose of the paper was to convince researchers in this field that certain mechanisms were plausible and shouldn't be over looked and it certainly did that.

Now, because I found this error, the path of my thesis has taken quite a turn. I've had to propose my own model, perform a similar analysis as the paper, and then apply my extension. In other words I've had to redo a non-negligible amount of the authors work in order to do my intended work.

Discussing the error is important for motivating the extra work I've done. How can I do this tactfully? What is fair to say, and what should I avoid saying? What kind of language should I use? Should I avoid mentioning it altogether?

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    Please can you edit into the question, your supervisor's answer to these questions when you asked them, as well as details on why that was insufficient? – EnergyNumbers Oct 24 '15 at 10:34
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    @EnergyNumbers While I agree that OP should ask their advisor, this isn't just a student-to-advisor question. Researchers can find themselves in this situation at any point in their career, possibly even before their advisors. – JeffE Oct 24 '15 at 18:04
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    It matters what kind of mistake you are talking about. Is it a straight-out mathematical error in a proof or derivation? A coding error? A statistical mistake?A silly modeling assumption? You can finesse the silly modeling assumption issue by simply pointing out the difference in assumptions and how it leads to a difference in results. Not so easy to finesse the issue of an outright mistake. But in any case, I personally think the way to proceed is always to openly contact the authors in question and discuss with them first. I've done this several times and have always been glad I did. – Corvus Oct 24 '15 at 23:07
  • The mistake is a modelling assumption. They propose several models (only analysing two in depth) - in the first model they correctly assume a certain quantity is conserved, in the next model (one that they analyse) they modify the first model by adding in an extra term that means the quantity is definitely not conserved. The result is that a whole new equation needs to be adding in to account for this. I'm not sure this is finesse-able – Phill Oct 25 '15 at 2:22
  • @EnergyNumbers I've had a discussion about this with my supervisor, not one in depth, but that's on the cards as I get closer to a final write up. The main reason for posing this question is because there didn't seem to be an equivalent question already on this site - I thought I would pose it here for posterity – Phill Oct 25 '15 at 2:31
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Use neutral and respectful language, but don't beat about the bush. If the model is wrong, say so. And remember to attack the idea, not the person.

Perhaps say something like:

"This work determined that the while the assumption that [quantity] is conserved is correct in the simpler case of model 1, this does not appear to be correct for the more complex case presented in model 2. This was established by [details of work that lead you to this conclusion]. It was instead found that the quantity is determined by [formula]. Model 2 therefore needs to be amended to [something]."

(I'm not sure if I've quite met all the requirements I've listed, but hopefully it'll give you something to go on.)

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When describing papers in general, when your results conflict with the one in another paper. You may do the following.

  1. State the positive outcomes of the paper (that is not in contradiction)
  2. State the matter that contradicts with your belief and how so.
  3. Show how your results defend your belief.

Note that your aim is to defend your theory and not to attack the previously stated one.

  • Also, one can also position his theory not as correction of an error, but an extension of the original one, discussion for cases that were not throughout investigated before etc. There is nothing rude about pointing out that other model assumptions may work better in certain scenarios. – Greg Oct 26 '15 at 5:14
  • I would add an advice to the reader: When there is "I like that ..., but I think that ...", do not even listen the first part, it's irrelevant. /sarcasm – yo' Nov 16 '15 at 10:31

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