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I am about to submit a manuscript in which I point to some methodological errors that I found in some literature. The error may significantly change part of the results and conclusions if those papers.

I thought I should first contact the authors of those papers to discuss the issue with them. Especially, to check if they actually made that mistake or if their methods were not detailed enough.

However, most of the authors that I tried to contact did not answer back (I checked their actual email address) or did not remember the details of their analysis.

What should I do? Am I "allowed" to point to some papers that I repute wrong only on the base of the details given in their method section?

  • Have you tried asking the ones that answered, but did not remember to contact the other authors which they think should be the ones that do remember? – skymningen Nov 17 '17 at 10:08
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Of course you can publish it if you think someone is wrong. This is the entire point of science. Always do so in a nice way though: it is very well possible that everything appeared to be correct with the knowledge at the time the paper was published. Or that it is you who misinterpreted the methods (possibly because the paper was a little vague), as you suggest in your question.

Even if it was really a mistake: everybody makes mistakes from time to time and that is nothing to be ashamed about. You did the right thing by contacting the authors first. Not only is it the correct thing to do, but I have also seen this lead to new collaborations that resulted in multiple papers.

If both the paper and the errors were important, it is your responsibility as a scientist to correct the errors. But if the errors are minor, the result is "unimportant", or you are not 100% sure that there actually is a mistake, you could also decide to simply ignore the paper. There are plenty of bad and/or unimportant papers out there and frankly, they do not deserve the attention even if it is to correct mistakes.

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    Good points. You might want to point out in your cover letter to the editor that you unsuccessfully tried to contact the original authors, that will make a good impression. And be polite, because the editor will quite probably invite the original authors as reviewers, or even suggest that they write a comment on your paper. Even if they didn't answer your email, they might be more active if they are contacted by a journal editor. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Nov 12 '17 at 20:26
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    Did you try contacting the publisher of erroneous paper, not the authors? Having a conversation with them might result in better success in reaching the authors. – Keltari Nov 13 '17 at 7:02
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In reference to "Especially, to check if they actually made that mistake or if their methods were not detailed enough." and "did not remember the details of their analysis."

Be very careful when you write your manuscript, and do not assume that authors made this mistake. It is perfectly fine to say something like, "There are two ways to do this procedure, and it isn't obvious in the literature which is the right way. In fact, many authors do not specify whether they do A or B. We show that only B is correct." It is also fine to say, "If the authors did A, it would bias their analysis by [...]" - and to point out whether or not there are signs of this effect.

This is both polite (by providing the benefit of the doubt) and also allows you to make a more conservative, but confident claim. This also helps you! If you write your paper assuming other people did their analysis wrong, a referee could say, "No, we didn't do A, we did B, everyone who isn't an idiot knows to do B" - and that doesn't bode well. But if you say, "Given the methods commonly described, it's impossible to tell if these results are accurate," this is both true and much more difficult to dispute!

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