I have finished my Phd in maths shortly. A few days ago, I have heard a revision decision from a very good journal where I submitted my paper. The comments from referees are generally fairly positive, and are not too difficult to address. However, I have found a mistake in a theorem proof, which the referees have not spotted. This mistake is difficult to fix, or may be unfixable. The theorem is the extension of the main result of the paper. I assume it is not an important result, as there are no comments or revisions from referees on this part. Then how to write to the referees to address this issue? I imagine it would annoy both the referees and the editor. When I am going to submit the revision, is it better to remove the wrong theorem or to keep it there? Many thanks.

  • 18
    Be happy that you discovered the error before your paper was published, unlike me. My PhD thesis shrank by 15 pages two weeks before I submitted it.
    – JeffE
    Commented Sep 2, 2016 at 22:23
  • 5
    Would you rather do the correction, or be a referee for a paper titled "A counter example to a theorem by mathsfm".
    – Joel
    Commented Sep 3, 2016 at 22:38
  • 2
    Surely you jest. Commented Sep 5, 2016 at 6:31

4 Answers 4


You absolutely have to advise the editor and referees of the error, and either correct or remove the erroneous part. It doesn't matter how much it annoys them, or even if it leads to the rejection of your paper. Keeping it there would be totally unacceptable and unethical.

Just tell the editor straight out:

"I discovered an error in the proof of Theorem 1.2.3. It does not seem to be fixable, so this theorem should be removed from the paper. The rest of the paper is unaffected [assuming that it actually is]."

The editor will probably ask the referees to re-review the paper with this information. It might change their decision, or it might not. But even if it gets rejected, that's something you just have to live with: fix the paper and submit it somewhere else.

You seem to be assuming that the referees noticed the error but decided not to say anything about it in their review. I doubt that. It's far more likely that they didn't notice it at all. Referees are humans and not omniscient gods, and just because they overlook an error does not mean it is okay to publish it.

  • 48
    I agree with this. When I was still in academia, I did this both for my thesis publication and for a subsequent (rather lengthy) paper with no adverse consequences. I simply said, "I found the following changes were necessary and I can't recommend publishing this paper without them". Impress them with your diligence and you may be rewarded.
    – Ryan Reich
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 16:06
  • 6
    @RyanReich Realistically, you can't expect a reward for something like this. Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 18:31
  • 10
    @enthdegree Yes, I know. I was afraid both times that they would angrily throw me out. Nonetheless, you are certainly not going to get a reward for not fixing your errors, and people often being generous, you may find that the editor actually appreciates your being forthright.
    – Ryan Reich
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 18:33

The responsibility for correctness lies with the author, not with the referees. So it is up to you to fix it. If the referees did not mention it, then there is no need for you to respond to them. You are only talking to the editor. But definitely the paper should be fixed before it is published.


Referees are there to check quality of paper, contents of the paper, procedures, theorems and lot of stuff so they often miss here and there being humans.

Letting the error go to be published can have two outcomes.

1st in academia there is trust on authors, other refering your paper assume the theorem to be fine and that can lead other papers to have errors.

2nd some one can spot the error later on and can cite your paper im his work showing the error which can be a matter of shame for you.

So better inform editor that it is the case and removing this portion will have no effect or these these effects. Let them decide then.


You should notify the editor, who will notify the referee. Much better to discover the error now, rather than after the paper is published, with your name on it. Then you'd have to publish a retraction, or worse, have someone point it out to you (and others) in their own paper.

Since it is on an "extension," it will probably be no big deal. Most editors would rather have a correct paper with one less extension than a paper with an error. The referee will probably be relieved as well; s/he was supposed to spot the error and didn't. It's barely possible (not likely) that the referee can suggest a way to fix it.

People make honest errors from time to time. But when one is discovered and not reported, it is no longer an "honest" error.

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