More stories of corrections to scientific articles

Aug 25 '09

Lee points to this article by physicist Rick Trebino describing his struggles to publish a correction in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s pretty frustrating, and by the end of it–hell, by the first third of it–I share Trebino’s frustration. It would be better, though, if he’d link to his comment and the original article that inspired it. Otherwise, how can we judge his story? Somehow, by the way that it’s written, I’m inclined to side with Trebino, but maybe that’s not fair–after all, I’m only hearing half of the story.

Anyway, reading Trebino’s entertaining rant (and I mean “rant” in a good way, of course) reminded me of my own three stories on this topic. Rest assured, none of them are as horrible as Trebino’s.

1. I did some research with Terry Speed, we published an article in a top journal, the article was cited a bunch of times, and a few years later I got a letter (yes, this was in the days of letters) by a researcher pointing out a counterexample to our theorem. I looked at the example carefully. The theorem was false and there was no way around it, no simple condition to add to make the theorem true, no way out. So I wrote a brief correction. In its entirety:

With regard to the theorem in the paper, the second part is, in general, false, and the proof, given in Section 4.2, is in error. Dr K. W. Ng and Professor A. P. Dawid have pointed out the following simple counter-example for two binary random variables x1, x2: P?(0,0)=0:3, P?(0,1)=0:2, P?(1,0)=0:2 and P?(1,1)=0:3. This joint density is uniquely specified by P(?x1jx2) and P?(x1), in contradiction to the second part of the stated theorem.

2. I read an article in The American Statistician many years ago. I can’t remember who wrote the article or what year it was, but it was something demonstrating Bayesian computation, but using a really ugly and complicated method. I feared that an article like this would just turn readers off from Bayes, so I wrote a letter detailing the mistakes and showing the problem could be solved much more simply. I received a letter from the editor thanking me for my submission and that it would be sent out for review. This was already a surprise to me–I had no idea that letters to the editor were peer-reviewed. I always had assumed they’d just be sent to the associate editor who handled the original paper. Anyway, in due course I received a letter from the editor, I think saying that the author of the original paper didn’t think my letter was worth responding to, so my letter didn’t appear. No big deal, but I thought I was doing a service in writing a letter–I certainly wasn’t going to get fame, fortune, or tenure for letters to the editor of The American Statistician–so it was a little annoying to feel like my time was wasted.

3. A few yeas ago I somehow heard about some articles by some sociologist in London–I think it was actually a reporter who called or emailed me asking for comments–and, well, if you read my other blog, you know the rest of that story. . . . I did actually have to revise my letter-to-the-editor in response to reviewers’ suggestions, but these comments were fair enough, and they allowed me to make the letter stronger.

4. Once I refereed an article and really hated it. The associate editor still wanted to run the article, but the editor of the journal agreed with me so he allowed me to run a brief comment along with the published article in the journal. Other times I’ve reviewed an article that I’ve liked so much that I’ve suggested it be run as a discussion article, and then I ended up writing one of the discussions.