Can I Fix a Mistake in My Published Academic Paper?
It’s the stuff of nightmares: You finally get your academic paper published, but your jubilation is short-lived because you find a mistake staring back at you. Mistakes have a funny way of evading detection right up until they meet the world. Everyone is going to see it, so all you can think is, “Is it too late to fix it?”
In most cases, if it’s a small, unintentional error that doesn’t affect the findings or overall credibility of the paper or the author (such as a minor typo or a mislabeled image), you’ll just have to live with it. It may be uncomfortable, but everyone—even the world’s foremost academics—makes mistakes, and readers are likely to forgive a minor mistake or two in an otherwise polished paper. That said, there are circumstances in which a correction, whether a retraction or an addendum, is absolutely necessary.
To avoid a situation like this altogether, check out our deluxe academic package before you send your paper off to be published. This service includes a detailed editorial letter with expert feedback, a review to ensure your work meets all the publication requirements (taking into account journal-specific guidelines), a full plagiarism report, a professionally edited and proofread copy of your paper, and more.
If you’ve already published your paper, let’s take a look at the kinds of mistakes you can and cannot fix.
What type of mistake is it?
Not all mistakes are equal. Some have a massive impact on the results and interpretation of the research, while others are so minor that readers may not even notice them. Some are due to insufficient vigilance on the part of the author, but others were introduced intentionally for whatever reason. The first step towards figuring out whether you’ll be able to correct the mistake in your published paper is determining its type. There are two major categories that mistakes fall into.
Unintentional mistakes are those made inadvertently by the author, such as typos, mislabelled figures/charts/images, and, in certain instances, errors related to data collection and classification and statistical analysis. These mistakes don’t compromise the conclusions of the research—they are due to an oversight on the part of the author, who has otherwise made every effort to provide accurate information in accordance with academic conventions.
Intentional mistakes are those made knowingly, such as the fabrication or manipulation of data, plagiarism, a disregard for research protocols, or a willful breach of the publication’s submission rules. Basically, anything that can compromise the reputation and integrity of the research, the author, or the journal falls into this category, even if the reason behind the mistake was laziness rather than an intent to deceive the audience. Such mistakes can have major consequences for both the author(s) and the publication, including sanctions for academic misconduct, so if you were thinking of cutting corners anywhere in your paper, it’s not worth it.
Can the mistake be fixed?
The short answer is no—these mistakes can’t exactly be fixed, but they can be amended. If it’s an unintentional error, one that will not affect the outcomes or findings of your research, there’s really nothing you can do about it. Yes, it’s frustrating, but consider it a valuable lesson for next time and move on. Focus on your research and the value it adds to your field—that’s what truly matters, not one silly typo that somehow persisted through several rounds of proofreading.
If it was an intentional or major mistake that does affect the conclusions of the study, there is no option to go back and un-publish it, but there are three ways in which it can be addressed, depending on the gravity of the error.
A retraction signed by all co-authors must be submitted for publication if the error found is considered to invalidate the results of the research. This is the most consequential type of error, and the journal and the audience will expect a detailed explanation. As far as the author’s or authors’ reputation goes, it’s better to address these errors quickly, directly, and honestly, taking full responsibility and admitting whatever faults led to the mistake.
A notification known as an erratum is released when the publication makes a significant mistake that may affect the reputation of the author(s). This type of mistake can be particularly stressful for an author because they are not at fault at all—if you find yourself in this situation, bring it to the attention of the publication promptly and politely and persist until a satisfactory solution is found. When the mistake is made by the writers, a notification known as a corrigendum must be approved and signed by the author or authors and submitted to the journal or otherwise published. It can be less stressful when you’re the one who’s made the mistake because you have more control over addressing it.
An addendum is attached to a paper by the editorial team if additional information concerning the subject matter is published and is deemed necessary for the original paper to be understood correctly. This is commonly used to avoid misunderstanding and offer context rather than to retract an incorrect statement or finding, but authors may also attach an addendum if credible new research conflicts with their findings.
How do I address the mistake in my published paper?
If the mistake in your published paper requires either a retraction, an erratum, a corrigendum, or an addendum, then it’s time to address it publicly. The first thing to do is to speak to your co-authors about the mistake. Does everyone agree on what the mistake is, how and why it happened, and how to address it? Depending on the nature of the error, it may be challenging to get everyone on the same page, especially if it is primarily one person’s fault. Whatever the situation is, a calm, professional, and empathetic demeanor will take you a long way.
How exactly you proceed will depend on the publication’s guidelines, which can vary from journal to journal. Most editorial boards have to weigh the pros and cons of the ways to publicly address the error. They consider questions such as who is making the request, who will write the correction and take responsibility for the error, whether the original paper should be taken offline, and how long ago the paper was first published. This can be a complex decision for all parties involved and should be fair to the publication, the authors, and the readers. With the implications of each mistake differing substantially, the process for addressing errors in published academic papers is handled on a case-by-case basis.
If you haven’t published your academic research paper yet, don’t take any chances—you definitely don’t want to spot any type of mistake once it goes live. Get our deluxe academic package for the peace of mind that your paper has no spelling, punctuation, or grammar mistakes, is plagiarism-free, and meets all the submission requirements of your target journal. Click here to learn more about all of our academic writing services.