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I am writing a paper that illustrates a technique that is superior to a technique presented in a separate paper that I am citing as part of my work. The technique in the prior paper is not wrong, but it has several major drawbacks that my results address.

My question is, what is a polite way to point out the problems in the initial results, and then demonstrate why my results address these problems without coming across as insulting to the original authors? I would prefer an explanation of how to actually point out their drawbacks, rather than one that avoids it altogether, because I think it allows me to give a more clear and cohesive explanation of my findings. For example, I would prefer not to resort to just saying, "My technique is , which has , and advantages", because I think that pointing out drawbacks of earlier techniques will highlight and clarify the advantages of this new technique.

I would fully expect (and hope) that someone in the future would come along and point out the drawbacks of my approach, and how they improved upon it. It just seems to me that if I don't point out the drawbacks in the previous approach, I'm being both intellectually dishonest, and unfair to the reader who would have gained a deeper understanding of my paper had they had the full context.

  • As long as you stick to factual comments, you should be fine. Part of your job as a researcher is to justify the need for and usefulness of your work - this is generally done by pointing out that existing approaches don't completely solve the problem for some reason. (If they do, why did you bother with your approach?) Other researchers understand this, so no-one's going to be offended as long as you describe the limitations of their work fairly and don't oversell your own work. – Stuart Golodetz Oct 8 '16 at 17:33
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    One key point is that you should point out drawbacks that you solve, i.e. "X et al.'s approach didn't address this problem, but we do". If you don't address the problem either, then you're not well-placed to criticise them for not addressing it. To take a facetious example, this is not so good: "X et al. stupidly don't present an approach for curing cancer, and neither do we. However, ..." – Stuart Golodetz Oct 8 '16 at 17:37
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    This is very common, so you could just read how others, especially in your field, are doing it, and do it similarly. – fkraiem Oct 9 '16 at 20:43
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I think, the principle

Show, don't tell.

applies and suffices. You don't need to point out flaws and drawbacks, you just show the points where you made improvements. State facts, back them up, avoid opinionated statements and you should be fine. This way "being polite" is not necessary, since you will not come near some "impolite" statement.

  • That's a tough one. My worry is that you'll get feedback from reviewers saying the contributions over previous work were not made explicit enough... – jmite Oct 8 '16 at 14:45
  • Well, make the contributions explicit. I don't see why this can only be done impolitely. – Dirk Oct 8 '16 at 14:51
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    Hi Dirk, @jmite points out one of my concerns here. While I could simply state my improvements, I think pointing out flaws in the previous work also highlights and clarifies the point I'm trying to make. For example, if I say, "I did <x>, which has <y> benefits", it's (arguably) less clear than saying, "The previous work did <x>. This won't work for <u>, <v>, and <w> reasons. My work is <y>, which addresses these reasons because <a>, <b>, <c>." By pointing out the flaws in the previous technique, it forms a more cohesive argument and exposition. – 01010110011001 Oct 8 '16 at 16:29
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    I see. However, your formulation looks fine to me, nothing impolite about it – Dirk Oct 8 '16 at 16:31
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It is somewhat case dependent of the state of the art, and how your paper and the previous one fit into it.

However I think that you could use some variation of the following structure:

The John Smith's method + something good about it + . Until now the x y z isues have not been solved. In this work, we propose a method which address the points ...

The idea behind this is to state that John Smith has made some progress in his good work. So John Smith is a good scientist. Problems remains to be solved because no one in the world solved them yet. This sounds different from "John Smith did not solve x y z when he tried to solve general problem" (which is of course the terrible truth!).

Make personal the advantages of John Smith's method and impersonal the drawbacks of his approach.

Of course all the above should not be necessary, but many scientists tends to be very sensible (and insecure) people as regards their ego.

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In mathematics, I've sometimes seen something like:

This lemma was stated in [1]. We give an alternative proof here, since we were not able to follow the proof given in that beautiful paper.

I take it as an euphemism for "the proof in [1] is wrong/contains serious gap".

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    Hah, yeah that sounds seriously condescending to me. Do you remember where you saw that? – 01010110011001 Aug 17 '17 at 22:00
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You can start by stating the advantages of their method and the problems that adressed. Then you can show the main disadvantages that (maybe also) led you in developing the different approach. You should be clear and write in the same way that you would like someone else to comment on your method.

I think it's easy to avoid being rude, but other than that, everything else should be fine. And if you feel on the limit, you could suggest disadvantages of your approach that future research would/could solve.

It's also a good idea to show the text to someone else. From the field or totally outside would help read with a clear mind.

In general, science is also about improving each other and move forward.

But in a way, i understand your concern, as it's very probable the reviewer is one of the authors. The problem there is that no matter how you present it, your approach will be scrutinized (or worse). You can only hope they will be reasonable and try not to have any holes in your study.

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