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Is there a site on SE that I could ask about whether I have found an error in a scientific paper?

"Living too long" by Guy C Brown has the following (it seems to me) self-contradictory paragraph:

Human life expectancy has been increasing at a rapid rate. Better health care and hygiene, healthier life styles, sufficient food and improved medical care and reduced child mortality mean that we can now expect to live much longer than our ancestors just a few generations ago. Life expectancy at birth in the EU was about 69 years in 1960 and about 80 years in 2010, which corresponds to a rate of increase in life expectancy of 2.2 years per decade. If this rate of increase remains unchanged, as it has for the last century, then someone born in the EU today would be expected to live about 100 years.

Edit: FWIW I now think the most likely cause of the error is that the author meant to say "in the EU in a hundred years time" or "in the EU in 2110" but either made a typo or his text got edited later by someone else to what seemed to make more sense.

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  • What do you want to achieve by asking about that? If you just want to learn, you could ask about the truth of the statement per se on a suitable scientific stack exchange. The fact that the statement is part of a scientific paper would then only be context. But if you want to tell the author about the error, just tell the author about it, the email of the authors is included at the end of the article. – Trilarion Jun 4 at 8:34
  • I often find what seem to me to be false statements in all sorts of contexts, including scientific papers, but how do I am right? Also, frequently, I get no reply when I email the author of an article regardless of whether I am agreeing or disagreeing. Once I know I am not the only to one to think it is wrong, I would be in a better position to email the author. – Security Every Day Jun 8 at 22:25
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    You want to know if you are right? Then ask if statement X is right. The question is then simply: "Is X true?" and the appropriate stack exchange is the one where this question would on-topic. If there is no such stack exchange you're out of luck and would have to ask elsewhere. The fact that X was mentioned in a scientific paper is just context. – Trilarion Jun 9 at 6:25
  • @Trilarion Upvoted. What about when it's some other error, like a statement in the text being contradicted by a graph? Or two statements in the text that contradict each other? Also, why is it bad to ask "is this an error?"? – Security Every Day Jun 9 at 16:44
  • "Is this an error" moves the focus from the facts to the scientific paper and there is no exchange about scientific papers really. If the facts are established it simply follows if it's an error or not. In this way not only the paper profits from the generated knowledge. You could suggest a new stack exchange on area51.stackexchange about papers though. Simple analogy: if an image of a pipe isn't a pipe then a scientific paper isn't science (it's only about science). Talking about scientific papers would be its own topic and that doesn't exist yet here. – Trilarion Jun 10 at 4:49
  • Upvoted. I had thought the point was to be polite/mealy mouthed. Is that even a tiny part of it? You said, "the email of the authors is included at the end of the article" but I couldn't find it. While searching for it I found out that the paper has been cited, supposedly, in ("by"?) 21 other papers. How could no one have noticed the error? – Security Every Day Jun 10 at 20:13
  • This doesn't seem to be an error. The paper is saying that, if this rate of life expectancy increase is sustained, then someone born today will live 100 years (i.e. they will die approximately 100 years after today), not that the life expectancy today is 100 years. – forest distrusts StackExchange Jun 11 at 3:02
  • @forestdistrustsStackExchange Doesn't "someone born in the EU today would be expected to live about 100 years" mean the same thing as "life expectancy at birth in the EU today is 100 years"? – Security Every Day Jun 11 at 3:46
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    ""the email of the authors is included at the end of the article" but I couldn't find it." Go to the article page right to the end and you see article information. There is a doi link (dx.doi.org/10.15252%2Fembr.201439518) that redirects you to the publisher website (embo reports, the US government website you linked to is just a collector of freely available content) but there is also the full name, working address and email of the author "Guy C Brown" from Cambridge Univeritsy in the UK. On the journal website you usually have to open the article as PDF and then look below the title. – Trilarion Jun 11 at 7:01
  • @Trilarion Upvoted. I found the email address by following your instructions. Having said that, it was not easy at all, even with you instructions. I could not find the doi link (where exactly is that?) and therefore I clicked on the link in your comment. Without your advice I would never have found it. Do you think it is by design that the email address is so hard to find? – Security Every Day Jun 11 at 7:28
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    No it's just exercise. If you know where to look it's just a matter of seconds and every reputable scientific journal prints contact addresses of the authors including at least one email address. Guy C Brown from Cambridge university doesn't hide either. Just google him and you'll easily find a department website with contact information. He even has a website (guybrown.net) with a contact me link at the bottom and again the email address. Science lives from scrutiny and contacting the author about a potential mistake is a good thing. Feedback also shows interest. I'd say: write him. – Trilarion Jun 11 at 12:41
  • @Trilarion Upvoted. "No it's just exercise". What does that mean? Where exactly is the doi link? I don't find a lot of authors of scientific papers asking for any errors to be pointed out to them. I see that more often in the preface or whatever at the beginning of a book, but still not very often. Maybe they have their reasons: I guess there are a lot of lunatics out there with access to the internet. – Security Every Day Jun 11 at 23:07
  • @Trilarion I wrote him like you suggested. No reply. Here's the email:To:gcb3@cam.ac.uk Sun, Jun 13 at 6:46 AM Dear Guy Brown, Your generally well-written and very interesting paper seems to have a misprint near the beginning. embopress.org/doi/full/10.15252/embr.201439518 has " Life expectancy at birth in the EU was about 69 years in 1960 and about 80 years in 2010, which corresponds to a rate of increase in life expectancy of 2.2 years per decade 12. – Security Every Day yesterday
  • @Trilarion and here's the rest of it: If this rate of increase remains unchanged, as it has for the last century, then someone born in the EU today would be expected to live about 100 years. " This seems to make no sense. Did you mean instead, perhaps, 'someone born in the EU in 2115 would be expected to live about 100 years' ? – Security Every Day yesterday
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There's not a dedicated or even particular Stack Exchange site for this, unless the claim is notable (then it would fit on Skeptics - see here for some discussion about what is considered notable).

In general, asking for clarification about a doubt you have about a scientific paper can be asked on the Stack Exchange site about that particular science. If I were in your shoes, I would ask on Medical Sciences but please check their Help Center to make sure your question is well received there.

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  • Also, if you’re not sure after reading the help center you can always post it on the per-site meta asking wether it is on topic or not. – Ekadh Singh Jun 4 at 2:18
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    @EkadhSingh note that per-site meta requires 5 rep to participate though. – Meta Andrew T. Jun 4 at 5:32
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@Glorfindel's answer is of course correct. I'll give some examples of what I've done in the past. I go to a specific SE site (there are almost 200 of them to choose from!) and then compose a specific Stack Exchange question that can be answered.

Consider your approach carefully; SE question posts must always be answerable questions and those that even have the appearance of to try to drive towards a specific answer are often mercilessly down voted. Ask objectively.

Sometimes I poke fun at the error when it's deserved (as in the case of the BBC inventing a new particle by accident):

and sometimes I'm very cautious when I'm not sure and I could easily be wrong:

and sometimes I just pose it as a question:

This one ended up being a bit heated and controversial but it was quite a fun ride!

and spun off into a separate Skeptics SE (as @Glorfindel mentions) question by another author, where it was extremely successful because it was asked objectively:

I still think the photo with a reflection of Armstrong in Aldrin's helmet counts!

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This could form the basis of a question on the statistics site CrossValidated if you focus on the statistical issue here. That might be, for instance, whether it is valid to model the increase in that way as linear in years, or whether having arrived at a suitable model it is valid to project it indefinitely into the future, or something similar.

You could try asking on the site meta if your proposed question would be suitable if you wanted.

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    This is an excellent answer and probably the best way for the OP to proceed. – uhoh Jun 6 at 23:52
  • What the difference between CrossValidated and Statistics? – Security Every Day Jun 8 at 22:26
  • @SecurityEveryDay I am not sure of the history of the site naming but I suspect it was to enable it to encompass a variety of things which might not be termed statistics by some people. – mdewey Jun 9 at 9:07
  • @mdewey Such as? – Security Every Day Jun 9 at 16:15
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    From the help page "is a question and answer site for people interested in statistics, machine learning, data analysis, data mining, and data visualization". – mdewey Jun 9 at 16:17
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That's a simple arithmetic blunder. I suppose you could ask about it on Mathematics.SE. Questions about errors in textbooks and exam papers are on topic there, so I expect a question about a mathematical error in a scientific paper should be ok.

If you do post this on Mathematics.SE, you should explain why you think the author's calculation is wrong, and what you think the correct value should be.

FWIW, Wikipedia has some nice LEB (life expectancy at birth) graphs.

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  • Why do you suppose such an obvious error has not been corrected? Are papers set in stone once published? – Security Every Day Jun 8 at 22:27
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    @SecurityEveryDay Papers published in offline journals are (obviously) unalterable after publication, so any errors are published in a subsequent edition of the journal. Online journals also follow that tradition to mimimize chaos. Preprint services like arXiv accept updated versions of papers, and link them appropriately. – PM 2Ring Jun 8 at 22:46
  • Do you mean that errors are commented on or retracted in a subsequent edition? If so, how would I check whether such a retraction exists? And why don't they simply append a correction like newspaper articles do online? – Security Every Day Jun 8 at 22:53
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    @Security Each journal has their own way of handling errata (which may be due to original author errors, or typos created in the journal's own production process). Yes, an online journal can append a correction to the original article. But they usually like to have an explicit errata notice so that regular readers are made aware of it. Busy people are unlikely to re-read articles on the off-chance that a correction has been appended. – PM 2Ring Jun 8 at 23:12
  • They probably should have both an appended correction (or an appended link to one) and an explicit errata notice. And how about the publication rewards people who find errors leading to corrections? Have you heard of a publication doing that? – Security Every Day Jun 9 at 16:20
  • "If you do post this on Mathematics.SE, you should explain why you think the author's calculation is wrong, and what you think the correct value should be." Wouldn't that contradict what uhoh wrote here: "SE question posts must always be answerable questions and those that even have the appearance of to try to drive towards a specific answer are often mercilessly down voted. Ask objectively."? – Security Every Day Jun 10 at 20:43
  • @Security You believe you've found an error, so you need to explain why you think it's an error. So post the quote from the paper (and the year it was published) and say something like: "But that seems wrong to me. We should use [this equation], which gives a value of [whatever]. Did the author make a mistake, or am I misinterpreting something?" If you post on Math.SE without giving your equation and the value you calculate, your post is more likely to be closed. – PM 2Ring Jun 10 at 21:21
  • Does Math.SE have a different policy from some other sites on SE regarding questions that "drive towards a specific answer" as uhoh put it. I still don't understand uhoh's point although he seems to be right - I tried out his advice and it did seem to stop the downvotes. I don't see why I need to make a show of being neutral. – Security Every Day Jun 10 at 21:40
  • @Security On the coding, science, and mathematics sites, you're expected to show some attempt at finding the answer to your problem. In this particular case, you believe that there's a mistake in the paper, so your question can't really be neutral, but you can leave open the possibility that they're right and you are wrong. – PM 2Ring Jun 10 at 21:56
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Depending on the specific type of science, different SE sites might work, if you phrase the question correctly. For instance, if it was a physics paper, and that paper something like π=2θ, and you believe π=3θ, posting a question on physics that looks something like “what is π/θ?” might be an on-topic question there.

Disclaimer: I know very little physics so the equations I put in this answer may make no sense whatsoever

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