The Missing Step


A scenario meant to stimulate discussion about the ethical issues that arise when researchers discover a mistake in the data or method used in a paper already published.


Student A was delighted when, in his final year in grad school, a joint paper with his faculty thesis supervisor, Professor B, was accepted at a competitive symposium in Theoretical Computer Science. The paper sketched the proof of a conjecture in complexity theory which had been the subject of a half-dozen prior papers. Student A's presentation was heard favorably by experts at the symposium, and afterward Student A began the detailed write-up of the proof for inclusion in his thesis.

But now, midway through the write-up, he realizes he cannot prove an essential lemma which had earlier seemed routine to both him and Professor B. He tells Professor B, and after a couple of days' work they realize that they had overlooked a serious lacuna in the proof when they published their symposium paper.

Professor B says they are obligated to publish an erratum in the following year's symposium volume. The deadline for submissions to next year's volume has formally just passed, but Professor B thinks they can still squeeze the erratum in if they mail it promptly. Student A thinks that with a few more weeks to think about it, he might be able to fill the lacuna.

  • What are Professor B and Student A's responsibilities to report the gap in their proof?
  • If Professor B and Student A disagree about responding, how might they resolve this disagreement?

Caroline Whitbeck introduced methods and modules for discussing numerous issues in responsible conduct of research at a Sigma Xi Forum in 2000. Partial funding for the development of this material came from an NIH grant.

You can find the entire sequence on the OEC at Scenarios for Ethics Modules in the Responsible Conduct of Research. Some information in these historical modules may be out-of-date; for instance, there may be a new edition of the professional society's code that is referred to in an item. If you have suggestions for updates, please contact the OEC.

Adapted from a scenario by Albert R. Meyer.

Albert R. Meyer. . The Missing Step. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.