Suppose you learn of a confirmed fundamental error in a CS conference paper (for a reputable conference) that smells of gross negligence. Is there any way to get it retracted? Whenever I've asked, people told me that CS conferences don't do that—and I've surely never seen it for PL conferences (though this paper is on algorithms).
While we can't talk specifics, please assume I've already done all the due diligence to confirm the error, down to getting the authors to confirm it.
I understand such errors won't kill people directly as errors in life sciences could, but I'm still concerned. Maybe a more serious version of https://xkcd.com/386/, but still.
The specific case
Years ago (around 2009) I've confirmed the flaw with other experts of the field (let's call them A), who confirmed it with the authors of the paper (let's call them B). I was just an undergrad and not working in the field, so I didn't participate in the conversation. This paper is still cited years later by the authors (as a "preliminary version") without mentioning the error—though a later paper citing it changes a key equation and (maybe) fixes the problem.
*Those experts avoided publicizing the flaw out of professional courtesy—making enemies of the author would allegedly have risked hurting their publication chances. However, they (had to) go as far as citing the paper without mentioning issues in follow-up work. Out of respect, I hence won't mention even the subfield of algorithms or the conference.
I'm also outside of the field—I got involved simply because I was friends with one undergrad doing research with experts A and he just asked me help when he couldn't make sense of the paper by B.
EDIT: I forgot to specify why I say "gross negligence", and I agree that was bad on my part. Here are the neutral facts as best as I can recall them/verify them:
- the included pseudocode has a type error in a crucial routine—if you index a matrix you need two indexes, not one. We started investigating because we couldn't make sense of the pseudocode. This was on a second paper specifically about the implementation. EDIT: All 8 accesses to the array in 21 lines have this type error, so it's no typo.
- the algorithm fails on the running example. EDIT: by running example here meant the example used throughout the paper. But I rechecked and the offending example is just the 2nd they use.
- the paper implements and benchmarks the algorithm it describes against a naive implementation, yet it didn't detect that the algorithm results are (EDIT) incorrect. After you've done 90% of the work, comparing results is pretty easy.
I wouldn't talk about negligence for an error in a correctness proof (which the paper seems to implicitly claim). And maybe the above is not gross negligence in this setting, but it does feel rather sloppy. I'm happy to be corrected though.
- The question starts with "Suppose you learn [of a case that...] smells of gross negligence", then focuses on retraction (not misconduct). You can question that assumption only if no such case exists. I do sketch one example but that's just supporting evidence; the focus of the question cannot be trying the specific case. I'm fine with also discussing this case, but I'm just trying to argue plausibility.
- I still think in such a context one should compare expected and actual results, at least once you have implemented both. The guidelines of the German Science Foundation say "good scientific practice includes the following fundamental principles:... consistently and critically questioning all results". Which sounds common sense to me.
- I'm sure aware of honest errors (which should also be corrected somehow). Nobody expects all proofs to be error-free and formalized.
- Google suggests "negligence" can only be "gross" if it endangers people's life. I'm surely not suggesting that. If that's how it's understood, I apologize for that and amend to negligence.