I found a significant error in a paper with 1000 citations. My advisor agreed that it is a significant error, but discouraged me from telling the author.

It occurred to me that maybe other graduate students also found the error, and never told the author, or they did tell the author and he just never corrected it. I think an author would have very little incentive to correct his own work, especially if they were famous for that work, and readers are strongly incentivized against writing a correction paper, because the author would be mad at them.

How often does this sort of thing happen? Can we really trust the literature?

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    Did your advisor give a reason for not wanting to contact the author?
    – Kimball
    Jun 9 '16 at 22:09
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    This surely happens all the time. And no, you cannot trust the literature. I don't think anyone would seriously claim that you can. Neither authors nor reviewers are infallible. If the result is important, you have to check it yourself; or weigh the effort needed against the risk of it turning out to be wrong. Jun 9 '16 at 22:37
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    There are a lot of errors where technically what is written is incorrect, but an experienced reader who is carefully studying the paper would notice the error and be able to recognize what should have been written instead. People often don't bother to correct errors of this kind: not so much to avoid embarrassment, more just because it's a big hassle. It may be that your advisor thinks that's the case here - maybe it is obvious to her what is meant, even if it isn't to you. Jun 9 '16 at 22:44
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    @NateEldredge if indeed it's a "forgivable error", I think it's a good teaching moment for the advisor to then explain to the student why that is. And so it's reasonable for the student to ask for some clarification.
    – Suresh
    Jun 10 '16 at 5:23

I'm not sure what you are looking for. I know for sure that the seminal paper that made one of my bosses famous had glaring mistakes in it. Despite the fact that his result was completely wrong, the paper started a new research field and is now highly cited (around 1700, I think). No one ever bothered to point out the calculation mistakes, without which the paper would have never gotten accepted, because his proposal got confirmed experimentally. More detailed calculations done by others showed his mistake, but confirmed his intuition. In any case, I can't find survey data in my field dealing with un(der)reported mistakes in papers. But, as you do research, you are bound to find quite a few.

On the other hand, I found this oncology paper on unreported mistakes in oncology papers http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3031354/

Looks like less than 25% of those who spotted mistakes in the papers, actually went on to report them.

The practice in my field is to write the authors about the possible mistake. If they are willing to correct it, there is not much point in escalating. If not, you can write a comment on how wrong the paper was, post it on arxiv and send it to the journal editor. This, assuming you're sure they made a mistake. Most people aren't willing to go through all this pain, but I've seen this many times.


Researchers/authors are human.

Humans make errors.

Thus Researchers/authors make errors (if we assume transitivity is given).

So, can we trust literature? Well, being an agnostic I tend to never blindly trust any statement. I found dozens of errors in the lectures I attended and made the experience that lecturers respond very different to criticism. There are some that feel attacked, or those that simply do not bother, but there are also those that will really think about your criticism and will correct you or themselves after having carefully checked the issue in question again.

I think, that a researcher's duty should be to allow and work with criticism as this will lead to an even better understanding of the topic for all involved sides. Also, your criticism shows interest which is actually a good thing and should be rated as such.

A good criticism should focus on the research itself and leave out personal-related stuff.

So my conclusion is, that you shouldn't just do nothing because of those strange unspoken rules society has built up to underline the higher status of academic people. Remaining silent for social fears is a bad thing that leads to a vicious cycle and harms research in my opinion. You should be free to question whenever you feel like it is necessary to question. Consider for yourself for when it makes sense to consume someone else's time. If you are not sure about your criticism, make some own research. If you are sure your criticism is right, if you ask me, for research itself this is the best one can do.

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