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I just came across quite a big problem for an interpretation my professor puts forward in her recently published book (a book containing original research in the humanities, not a textbook). I am not 100% sure, but I am pretty sure that I am right.

The error is not a factual error, but an error that concerns the logic of her argument. If somebody interprets a text, and I find very strong inconsistencies in this interpretation or a logical error even, this might not be objectively wrong per se, but it can come close to it in certain cases.

How am I to approach this? Shall I send her an email, explaining everything, or shall I try to publish it as a paper (assuming I am right about the severity of the problem)? I am worried that if I tell her, she might publish a paper herself or will tell me it's not so severe. I am bit paranoid here, I know.

I am also concerned with how to tell her - if I do. Shall I be confident and explain that I think I have found a problem for her interpretation or is this too bold? Or shall I formulate it more like a question? In the latter case, I am worried that she will not realise that I did really see the mistake and am only being polite. I don't want her to think that I pointed to something by asking a question, but that then she really came up with it. I have the feeling it would make more of an impression, if I would point straight to the problem as a problem. Of course, there is then also the possibility of her not liking me for this.

By the way, I am a Master student in the humanities. I will not do my PhD with this professor (or even at the same uni).

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    Simply finding a big mistake in a textbook isn't usually enough for a publishable paper. It could be enough, but only if the corrected statement is sufficiently interesting and hasn't appeared in the literature before. Can you say with confidence that these two conditions hold? If not, you'll only humiliate yourself if you try to publish this. And even if there is a paper here, you'd be better off alerting the prof before you publish it. That's just professional courtesy. – user37208 May 10 '16 at 18:00
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    @user37208 "The paper needs to be worth publishing even if the book didn't exist." is definitely not true in my field and I would guess most fields in the humanities. Much of what we do is offer competing theories and respond to each other. Many published papers argue against a significant claim in a noteworthy book without offering any interesting positive claims. – Hungry May 10 '16 at 21:35
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    What's wrong with "Hi, I've read this chapter in your book and I wanted to ask you about this and that". This could lead to a fruitful discussion, both for you and your professor. Without saying "you're wrong". If she was indeed wrong, she will realise it once you explain yourself well enough. – Gimelist May 10 '16 at 22:51
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    @K.Schaffer In your place I would , after putting down corrected matter ask if I missed something. It preserves respect while bringing it to courteous attention. – Narasimham May 11 '16 at 6:04
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    You are a student and you wish to correct a professor (I'm not saying profs can't be wrong, just that you need to be more than 100% sure you're right). You are "not 100%" sure you're right and yet you'd choose to publish the correction instead of speaking to your teacher about it? If the stuff is really wrong speaking about it to your teacher is the right thing to do. If this requires a publication you could do it together (don't worry about it). (I also found some glitches in some highly cited papers while doing my master thesis. I communicated them to the authors and that's it.) – Beni Bogosel May 12 '16 at 15:12
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The simple answer is that you should do both.

I do not believe you owe a professor just because she is a professor. If she has earned your respect and/or your loyalty through other means, you should certainly demonstrate it, but being a professor doesn't demand it, on its own.

That said, talking through the problem you have found with her will give you a lot of clarity on whether it is the scale of error you believe, and will help sharpen your own argument. It may not be an error at all in your professors mind. I doubt she'll hear your reasoning and slap her head, exclaiming "Oh snap! I was wrong all along!" She may simply believe it is unimportant, which is fine. It then falls to you to justify the importance of your observation.

Then you should publish this idea. The object of academia is to engage in the "Great Debate" and if you have found a doorway into that debate, and you believe in your argument, then you should absolutely walk through that door. If your professor has published the opposite, then all the better because it is something that is already in the "academic consciousness" and will consequently be relevant to both the discipline—assuming your professor is not a marginal figure—and your immediate environment.

I don't understand where the idea comes from among students that most good ideas are 'sprung' on the world through publication, or are kept private until the last minute. I know this is a common idea but the reality is much more complex, and really doesn't vary that much by discipline. Most ideas are talked out, written, then rewritten, sent to conferences, sent to journals and finally published, and that process does and should include the hostile interlocutors. By the time most ideas get published, regardless of article or book, the idea has already been widely discussed. Publication isn't really the revelation of an idea to the community but the codification of an idea, and an attempt to spread it to a wider audience.

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First: Slow down.

In the academic world, books are simply collections of known things presented in a unified fashion. In fact, in some disciplines, it's almost unheard of for someone to release something novel in book form. Additionally, while book chapters are reviewed by editors and (occasionally) peers, it's not the same peer-review setting as we have in journals. To that extent, people don't typically write papers rebutting an interpretation put forth in a book; they write papers rebutting the article(s) upon which the book chapter is founded. If a book chapter does indeed contain an error, then it'll just have to be fixed in the next revision, if there is one. As such, your concern about publication is probably far overstated.

Secondly: Are you sure you have found an error? Has anyone else reviewed your work to validate what you've seen? Are you sure that you fully understand the topic? If I was a betting man, I'd place my money on the professor who's been studying the field for years and has (presumably) thoroughly reviewed the literature, so much so that they just wrote a book on it, over first- or second-year graduate student, as a simple matter of statistics.

Thirdly: You should definitely just go talk to your professor and ask her, respectfully, to clarify what she wrote. If anything, she'll probably be appreciative that you're going through it in such detail. If you have found a real issue, you'll make her aware of it, and if you're lacking some background she can explain it.

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    I would also not put money on this. I also haven't claimed that I am 100% sure. But I also want to point out that it is not simply a 'collection of known things', my professor aims to put forward a novel argument in the book. You write that 'If a book chapter does indeed contain an error, then it'll just have to be fixed in the next revision, if there is one.' but this does not apply, as it would be a substantial error in his theory, not just a factual error that could be corrected in a line. – K. Schaffer May 10 '16 at 18:09
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    I'll correct you. Many books in certain disciplines are novel arguments. In fact, most publishers in the social sciences won't even touch something if more than about 25% is found elsewhere. The lone exception are "edited volumes" which are often republished articles. – The Pompitous of Love May 10 '16 at 18:31
  • In my discipline, it varies, but books certainly do often present new research. Moreover, most publishers of anthologies want original articles unless the book is explicitly aimed at providing an overview or intended to collect together major journal articles for teaching purposes or availability. – cfr May 10 '16 at 23:48
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    Why wouldn't you discuss it with the author (professor), and if there is indeed something to your argument, ask if they would be willing to co-author a revision or alternate theory? Obviously they are a subject matter expert and co-authoring would lend credibility to your new paper. – alfreema May 11 '16 at 1:26
  • No one in my branch of the humanities (musicology) gains tenure by publishing anything other than completely original research---that is, previously unknown sources, interpreted in new ways, according to new methods. – musarithmia May 11 '16 at 21:20
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No, you won't make an impression by being bold. You are a Master student and she is a Professor, even if you are 100% sure of what you say, you can't just throw your arguments at her face: because you have to show her respect, even if what she wrote is blatantly wrong.

The best way is to point it out as a clarification question, like:

I don't understand this point, because it seems to contradict with [what I have read in another book ; what we know about the organization of this particular structure ; with the latest research ; etc.].

In addition to not being bold, this approach has the benefit of allowing you to present your arguments point by point without seeming like you are arguing (you are trying to clarify a point you don't understand, so you can continue until you clarify it enough). And if it's your mistake, then you will learn something and you can go away without being tagged as a "smart-ass".

I used this approach on several occasions, and it always worked wonderfully well, and even opened a few opportunities (because it looks like you are pretty interested in the subject, which is probably true since you could spot an error).

And remember that making mistakes is easy, particularly when writing a book! So don't be too harsh on someone just because a few errors slipped in: this is bound to happen. However, if the book is full of errors, then you have another problem: do you really want to work with someone that is clearly incompetent or delusional? In this case, you don't need to point any error, you should just get out as fast as possible!

/EDIT: after OP comment clarifying that it is about a substantial reasoning error in a theory and not just a factual error: you can of course discuss with the professor, but be prepared that the debate can become heated. And that's totally normal and you should understand it: she studied the field for years, spent a couple more years to design her theories, and you think you can break her theory at your level of knowledge and study. Of course, this is possible: it is always easier to find a counter-example than to define a new theory. But remember that she put a lot of work in her theory, so even if the theory is wrong, you have to respect her for her effort in trying to advance the research in her domain.

Now you are free to either talk to her or publish a paper, it's your choice, but be sure to respect the person behind the research: as a researcher, your goal is to rebuke/confirm hypotheses and theories, not attack the person designing them. Focus on the content rather than the person (forget about trying to impress), and you should be good.

  • No respect is intrinsically due - it is a simple matter of facts that the truth of an argument is independent of the status of those asserting it. If a professor is wrong about something, that's more important than their job title. – NietzscheanAI May 15 '16 at 17:02
  • Respect is intrinsically due to any other human being. The title is just an indication of how much time the person has dedicated to his/her research, and you can compare this amount of time with the amount of time you have spent yourself: if there is a wide gap, you ought to be more moderate, that's just logical. Of course, that doesn't mean you have to shut up, but you can just talk with respect. Not only for the recipient, but also for your own sake: you won't believe the number of crazy people that will vehemently give their opinion on just anything. Better not be amalgamated with those. – gaborous May 15 '16 at 17:41
  • Perhaps my comment came across as too adversarial: I am merely cautioning against 'undue deference'. Broadly, I think we agree. – NietzscheanAI May 15 '16 at 17:45
  • @user217281728 I can't agree more indeed about undue deference :) – gaborous May 15 '16 at 17:46

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