12

This question is based on a paper I came across a couple of years ago written by a famous professor who had developed a method to solve a certain problem. His method was not the first or the only method but it has some advantages and it is widely used in industry.

The paper I came across was written with sole purpose of finding flaws in a method for solving the same problem that someone else had published 15 years later.

Regardless of who was right, is this the proper way to deal with a flawed paper? This seems a bit weird to me. Do journals even normally publish such papers? Aside from citing the (presumably) flawed method, he also specifically named the authors in the abstract.

This worries me a bit because I plan to publish another method of solving the same problem soon, and although I have confidence in my work I don't think it's bullet-proof. I feel that if such a paper was written about my research it could have a significant negative impact on my future career if that was what popped up when you googled my name.

  • 2
    There are at least two parts in your question. Re the paper you ran into and which seems to have shocked you, what do you suggest as a "proper way to deal with a flawed paper", other than publishing another paper rebutting the claims of the first paper? Re your own paper, your main worry, by far, should be to make it 100% "bullet-proof". If you can do that, why should you fear any subsequent publication about your own? If you cannot, do not publish. – Did Apr 2 '16 at 15:51
  • 16
    There was a guy named Einstein who published his findings about flaws in a method developed earlier by another guy, Newton. Are you suggesting that Einstein should have refrained from publishing those flaws, or that the editors should have declined to publish his criticism, or that Newton should have refrained from publishing his own work out of concern that it may not be "bullet-proof"...? This is just an example of course, the same thing has happened thousands of times and is simply the way science works. – Dan Romik Apr 2 '16 at 16:46
  • 3
    How could one write a paper showing that another paper is wrong and not cite the authors and name them? If you want to avoid people writing papers saying that your paper is wrong, don't write papers that are wrong! – David Richerby Apr 3 '16 at 3:00
  • 2
    @DanRomik: I am very ignorant in History of Sciences, but wasn't Newton's work bullet-proof for the criteria of science and rigor of his era? Einstein just had better bullets... – Taladris Apr 3 '16 at 3:18
  • Thanks for all the answers. It makes it a bit more clear. The problem solved here is some numerical problem that can be solved in countless ways and there are many papers published on the topic. The main thing that seemed weird to me was that the paper called out the authors by name instead of their method and it made it seem personal to me. Furthermore, both methods yield identical solutions, so they are both 'correct' methods, the 'flaws' I mentioned are really just cons of using that method. – somerandomdude Apr 3 '16 at 5:29
12

It depends. If a method is well-known, but flawed (be it widely used in industry or not), then someone should point out its flaws. Not only is this the right way to progress science, but - depending on the applications - not doing so can be downright dangerous - let's say the method is used in clinical trials, or to hedge risk. A paper that dismantles an old one strikes me as the right approach, naming authors necessary as the method is associated with them. If the new method might replace the old one, the proper rebuttal would be publication - ideally in the same journal.

Where is the 'It depends?' The new paper should be civil, fact-based, and not personal, of course. It's about using a method properly, not about disparaging competing researchers. Additionally, if a new paper - like yours, say - is only an alternative method, not one that corrects errors, then the old paper should be part of the literature review, and the merits and dis-merits of the new paper highlighted, as well as situations where one or the other performs better, should this apply.

Papers like this certainly exist, and can be famous. Here is an example by David Kreps (Stanford GSB), which cast doubt not on a particular paper, but on an entire then-popular sub-discipline. It was certainly not written for any purpose other than academic curiosity, and a desire to question the current state of the art. While this is not exactly the same situation, I think it compares in spirit.

14

Whether papers like this will be published depends on the journal and the editor. It usually is preferable to show how a problem can be solved correctly. However, it might be well justified to solely point out weaknesses in existing work.

Keep in mind that very few things are actually "bullet-proof". The more you know about a method (new or old) the more this will become obvious. Most methods have their limitations. Newton's laws are still "pretty good" although Einstein and others have shown their limitations.

If you have confidence in your new method, you will probably highlight the advantages it has over existing methods in your paper. However, you should also be open about the limitations of your own contribution. Be clear about what your method can and cannot do and where and when it is applicable. In being honest about your own work you are making a true contribution to science. However, if you’re starting to have severe second thoughts about your method, it might be better to double check what you're doing. Talk to other people in your field and openly discuss your concerns before publishing.

As long as you don't over-egg your own contribution you will be close to bullet-proof. It won't be bad for your reputation or career if somebody were to find a weakness in your work and improve your method or the knowledge of the field. That's part of how science works. You can only make contributions to the best of your current knowledge and move on when you have new information. The only thing negative for your career would be to ignore new evidence and trying to hide past mistakes.

  • 3
    +1. The more reflexion and honesty in the original publication, the less room is left for "competition" to point out any unpublished limitations of the method. Hopefully not enough room to make a purely corrective article publishable. – Jirka Hanika Apr 2 '16 at 12:52
12

That someone tries to find flaws in your work does not mean they are trying to be "mean" or to belittle your work. It means you did something that seemed to be good and important enough for someone else to bother trying to investigate and improve it. Then the rational reaction is you should feel honored instead of sad.

3

I have come across such papers. One notable one was written to show that the proofs in a handful of highly cited papers are wrong. He then proceeded to fix them.

In general, I think every paper that solves the same problem MUST highlight the weaknesses of existing methods. Now, whether the 'highlight' is done with tact is up to the authors. Some are arrogant and their comments serve to show how 'smart' they are.

In conclusion, yes such papers get publish because they contribute to the body of knowledge. How a paper is presented may irk some reviewers/readers, but if the contribution is significant, I doubt anyone cares.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.