This question was asked in the Q&A session of an online talk presented by International Science Editing. In this blog, we discuss how to respectfully dispute the findings of others.
Acknowledge the good
Begin by acknowledging what you liked. Rarely is a paper so poorly written that you cannot find a single aspect to commend.
This is a valuable result because …
Their trial was exceptionally laudable …
We applaud the authors for drawing attention to this topic …
We recognise the value of testing …
We would like to thank Smith et al. for their scientific contribution …
Use neutral language
Neutral language is not biased or overly critical. Use phrases like “our results indicate, or demonstrate” rather than “our results prove, or disprove”.
These results are inconsistent with the findings of Smith et al.
We respectfully disagree with their assertions and have detailed our reasoning below based on a critical evaluation of the published data and methods.
Although we agree that X, we believe there is insufficient evidence to support Y.
Argue both sides
Anticipate the authors’ response. By considering all potential opposing arguments, you will strengthen your own argument. Identify and address all sources that conflict with your argument. This will show the reader that you have considered your position from all angles.
Proponents of X often cite the well-known study by Smith et al. However, as discussed by Jones et al., this study had numerous limitations that are frequently overlooked.
However, a recent study by Smith et al. supports our theory, casting doubt on the conclusions of Jones et al.
A direct quote is often the fairest way to present the findings of others. It reduces the risk that you will present an opposing argument in a way that is biased towards your own interpretation.
However, the premise of the study, that V4 neurons “are generally not selective for direction of motion”, is not entirely accurate. At least three reports have assessed direction selectivity in V4 quantitatively and have found that … [see here].
This is especially important in the social sciences.
Kauffman writes that ‘inclusion’ is “virtually meaningless, a catchword used to give a patina of legitimacy to whatever program people are trying to sell or defend” [see here]. However, we are of the opinion …
Write as if you are on the same team
The group with whom you disagree likely want the same outcome as you—to get to the truth of the issue you are addressing. If you keep this in mind when drafting your paper, it will come across in your writing.
We cannot explain these inconsistencies. We suspect they are due to differences in X. Further studies are required to confirm Y.
This was surprising in light of a previous study that showed …
Perhaps a framework to enhance the interpretation of evidence should be developed.
Do not get personal
Focus on the facts, not the people. Avoid dismissive language such as:
Smith et al. naively argue that …
The authors clearly have not even read the article.
The authors display their lack of knowledge here by suggesting …
Avoid “straw man” arguments
Do not over-simplify or exaggerate the points made by the other authors, take their point out of context, or only focus on specific aspects while ignoring others—this is known as a straw man argument and is considered a deplorable way of refuting previous findings.
By way of example, a climate sceptic may offer the straw man argument that a specific finding (e.g., a temporary dip in sea levels) is evidence that the planet is not warming.
Disputes in science are common and necessary, and discussing your findings in the context of other evidence is the cornerstone of good science. Respectfully refuting previous results using clear reasoning will push your field forward.