I am an undergraduate student at a university you have probably heard of who works with their professor on independent research. Recently, I noticed a rather significant technical error in one of the important papers my professor has co-authored. I pointed this out to them in one of our weekly meetings and the professor awkwardly and quickly changed the subject. I am concerned about this but haven't done anything further. I am worried that if I insist on this then it will harm my chances of getting a positive rec letter from my professor down the line when I apply to grad schools. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place and am very unsure of what to do.

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    Publish an extension of the paper, possibly as a technical report, to correct the error. – user2768 Nov 9 '17 at 14:15
  • I assume you did not coauthor this work. I would recommend you to discuss this with your professor's supervisor. Another option would be to write to the journal with your name, but requesting confidentiality from the editor. – Joe_74 Nov 9 '17 at 14:35
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    You told your professor about the error, in my opinion nothing more is required of you. I would be inclined to not push the point and not do anything that will harm your relationship with the professor. Don't worry, if the paper is important then other people will catch the error too. If you do decide to push the issue, you could at least wait until you are already in grad school. Another possibility is that if you can figure out a way to fix the error, you could discuss your solution with the professor (but only if you have solved the problem). – eternalGoldenBraid Nov 9 '17 at 21:06
  • @Joe_74 I don't recommend going behind the professor's back and involving their supervisor. First, because it can backfire badly, second because the supervisor may not be happy to be drawn into a matter that's not their business (the supervised may have graduated decades ago for all we know). – henning -- reinstate Monica Nov 11 '17 at 9:30

Let me start with a standard question: are you sure that what you noticed is an significant technical error? Have you considered the possibility that your professor's reaction meant something other than a tacit admission that you are right?

OK, let's assume you're right and the paper really does have a significant error. Then according to me:

You have fully discharged your ethical duty by pointing out this error to your professor. In particular, it is not your job to "tell" your professor to fix it nor to "insist" that they do so.

Pragmatically speaking, if you do press the issue with your professor, it is possible they will write a less favourable letter for you. Needless to mention, I don't say the professor would be right to act in this way, but it would be naive to think it couldn't happen.

One commenter recommends that you discuss this with your professor's "supervisor", presumably meaning a head of department or dean. I would not recommend this: if the supervisor brings the issue to your professor, it would not take a great leap of insight to figure out your involvement, and the professor's reaction in this case is likely to be rather more negative in the previous scenario.

In short: you have made your professor aware of the problem. It is now their responsibility to see that it is resolved.

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    If the professor has co-authored the paper, it might also be incumbent upon one's ethical duty to notify the co-author if it appears that the professor is not attempting to resolve the problem. – BobRodes Nov 9 '17 at 20:01

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