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In the course of some research, my adviser and I noticed that a formula that is widely used in the field has an inaccuracy. It corrects for an effect that doesn't exist, so the correction makes things worse than they would be without it.

This formula was first published in the 1970s, and other people seem to have assumed it was correct. It has since found its way into about 30 papers and a handful of commercial software products.

However, my adviser does not want to publish a correction. He feels it would be bad for him politically and financially. He has a business that would be negatively affected if he makes too many "waves".

What ethical considerations are at play here? If we do end up publishing the results 5 years later, would people be upset that we sat on the data for so long? Is there some sort of compromise.

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    I assume you have evidence that the effect being corrected doesn't exist? And if so, is there a chance that 40+ years ago, that effect existed for one reason or another? For example, hardware may have been different 40 years ago when the formula was developed, so it may be time to "update" the formula (which would make for a great paper). – tonysdg Oct 27 '16 at 18:46
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Keep in mind that science is the process of getting progressively less wrong, and that publicly sharing your knowledge that the correction is inappropriate will help advance the state of the field (I've found this paper to be inspiring in that regard).

Also, if you're working in a field where your formula is widely known it is likely that someone else will eventually come to the same conclusion that the correction is inappropriate. Personally, I'd prefer to have a publication record where I correct my own mistakes, rather than having someone else do it for me. My rationale is that self-correction demonstrates a meticulous approach to research, which is generally viewed as a positive attribute in a researcher. Not correcting your own mistakes risks the appearance of carelessness, especially if it is known that you had the means of finding and correcting the mistake and did not do so.

I would recommend publishing the revision to the formula as its own finding, complete with examples of how the revision alters the output of the formula and in what circumstances it meaningfully alters the result, rather than as a correction.

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  • @virmaior 's answer is more in line with the title, I'd agree that there is no ethical obligation on your part (without further complicating factors) to correct the mistake. – Adam Bosen Nov 2 '16 at 15:34
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There is no prima facie ethical obligation correct the mistakes of others.

Any need to correct the mistakes of others would only arise due to other reasons. For instance, if you knew that a machine in a factory was prone to having its blade fly off in the direction of a group of people, you'd be under an obligation to do something about that (to the degree that your belief is certain and you have a capacity to do something).

Apart from variations on the above, you're not under any obligation to correct others even if erroneous equations are running around. Consequently, there's no research failing for your advisor not to publish it.

That being said, you would/do have an obligation not to propagate the errant equation. Since you know it's mistaken, you shouldn't include it in any of your publications as if it were true.

Similarly, it does seem questionable for your advisor to make his research decisions based on the interests of his company, but that's more a conflict of interest in general -- i.e. that he would put the interests of his company ahead of his research choices. Maybe to reword all of that into a few cases:

  1. Researcher A chooses to research and publish thesis P rather than thesis Q.
  2. Researcher B chooses to research and publish thesis P rather than controversial in field thesis Z.
  3. Researcher C chooses to research and publish thesis P rather than career-damaging thesis Y, because it will/might hurt his career.
  4. Researcher D chooses to research and publish thesis P rather than potentially business damaging thesis X, because it will/might hurt his wallet.
  5. Researcher E-1 researches thesis W, learning W may result in harm and does not publish it.
  6. Researcher F-1 researches thesis V, learning V will very likely result in harm and does not publish it.
  7. Researcher G-1 researches thesis U, learning U will undermine his business and does not publish it.

Actually, I don't think there's anything wrong with any of the cases above... but E-G are capable of wrongful variants. For A-D, we are not under any compulsion (generically speaking) to pursue any particular research agenda. Of course, we may be compelled by funding sources or bosses to do/avoid certain things and violating these sort of obligations can be immoral.

Skipping these employment obligations, E,F, and G can be immoral when we "and failing to inform relevant parties." In other words, if we have great reason to believe W will cause harm, then we should tell the company making it or the clinical trial using it. If U shows a business model is faulty, we should not defraud others with what we know is false.

tl;dr - without further complicating factors, there's no requirement your boss either research this further or publish about it.


Separately, it may make a great paper if you can show a well-cited equation is errant or needs updating. There, the challenge is knowing how to get it through in this political landscape.

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