How to Handle a Mistake in a Published Paper

academic skills journal articles peer-review Nov 20, 2023
Women with palm on face. Mistake in publishing scientific article.

As an academic, you put in countless hours of research and hard work into crafting a paper that is informative and accurate. However, even the most meticulous researchers can make mistakes. Actually, I would say that ALL researchers makes mistakes, and the good news is that errors are not the end of the world. In this blog, I will discuss how to handle mistakes in published articles. I will explore common types of errors found in academic papers and their potential consequences. Additionally, I will provide effective strategies for identifying and correcting mistakes, including proactive steps to take when a mistake is discovered and how to issue a correction notice, if needed. 

Understanding the nature of errors in published articles

First of all, know this: small errors, like typos, are incredibly common in published articles, so there's no need to worry excessively about them. Bigger mistakes happen too; original research is by definition challenging, because it's something nobody has done before. If you have to come to this article because you have discovered a mistake in your paper, then pause now, take a breath, don't panic. Mistakes happen to the best of us, and that's why there exist many options available to you to fix the mistake.

There are of course different types of errors that can occur in published work, ranging from typos to inaccurately represented data. A misspelled word has far less implications then a wrong data table, for example. So it's important to consider the kind of error you found in your paper before deciding what to do. The ultimate goals is to uphold scholarly standards, and share the best version of your work as possible, but know that not every mistake requires that you go through a formal and more onerous correction process.

Common types of errors found in academic papers

Mistakes in academic papers come in various forms. On the lower end of severity, there are errors such as typographical errors, grammatical errors, incorrect citations, missed references, or mixed up tables and figures. On the more serious side is when their mistakes in the reported observations, flawed data analysis, incorrect statistics, misinterpreted findings, misled conclusions, or ethical concerns.

The potential consequences of mistakes in published papers

Mistakes in published papers have the potential to disseminate inaccurate information, impacting scientific discourse and the integrity of academic literature. Because of this, mistakes can potentially lead to a loss of credibility and trust within the academic community. While it's essential to avoid mistakes as much as possible, it's also very common for errors to occur. So, if you've made a mistake, don't freak out, because there is a system in place to both prevent and correct errors. Understanding how to evaluate the potential consequences of mistakes in published papers is important, as is knowing how to take action to correct mistakes when needed. This meta-awareness allows both authors and publishers to maintain scholarly accuracy and reliability while upholding the integrity of their published work.

Man sitting at desk, frustrated and looking at graphs.
Mistakes happen. Even in academic publishing. If you have found a mistake in your paper, don't panic. There are formal processes in place to deal with and fix mistakes when needed.


Effective strategies for identifying and correcting mistakes

Even after submission there are many opportunities to find and correct mistakes. During peer review for example, reviewers will help identify errors that can be addressed in revised version of the manuscript. The journal will copyedit the manuscript after acceptance, which further polishes the spelling, grammar, formatting, and referencing style. Additionally, authors receive proofs when the article is in production, providing an opportunity to rectify any remaining errors. As an author, your role in all these stages should be a proactive one so that you can facilitate the correction of mistakes, ensuring as much as possible the integrity of your published work.

Proactive steps to take when a mistake is discovered

If you discover a mistake at any point BEFORE the paper is published, as summarised above, then make sure to make the necessary changes as soon as you have the opportunity. For example, if you submitted the paper and it is now 'in review' and you find a mistake, them make sure to note it, wait for your reviews, and then correct in when you are responding to the reviewers suggestions.

If you discover a mistake AFTER publication, then you want to promptly assess the scope and implications of the mistake in order to decide next steps. If the mistake does not have serious implications, like a typo or spelling error, then you most likely are not going to do anything. Things like that happen. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of published journal articles have some sort of minor error in them.

If the mistake is more serious because it limits the ability of the someone to understand, evaluate, or reproduce your research, then you will want to consider connecting with the editor of the journal to initiate a formal correction notice. Issues with authorship (spelling, missing authors, etc.) should also usually be corrected.

Kinds of correction notices: Errata, Corrigenda, etc.

A correction notice is a statement issued by a publication to rectify an error in previously published content. Online, correction notices will most often appear as a note associated with the published article, either at the beginning near the title, or at the end. In the printed version of the journal, it will appear in a special section for correction notices.

As an example, here is Plos One's policy on corrections, and a few examples of correction notices they have published:

Different journals use slightly different phrases and have different procedures for dealing with corrections. Here are some terms to be aware of:

  • Erratum (plural is errata): This term can be used in the general sense for public notices of corrections after publication, but is also sometimes used specifically to errors that were introduced by the publisher (usually formatting or display issues) and not the author(s)
  • Corrigendum (plural is corrigenda): This term can be used to refer to corrections to an author’s error
  • Addendum (plural is addenda): This term can be used to describe an addition that needs to be made to a paper after it has been published.
  • Expression of Concern: This is a notice issued by a publisher warning that an article may contain significant errors. Sometimes this means there is an investigation underway in order to decide the next course of action.


Women typing on laptop holding pencil.

The editor of a journal can choose to publish a correction notice. There are different kinds of correction notices and this includes errata, corrigenda, and addenda, which will appear online in association with the journal article.


What is a retraction?

A retraction is a formal statement issued by the author, publisher, or journal that withdraws or disavows a previously published article, paper, or other work. Retractions are typically made in cases where serious errors, ethical issues, or misconduct have been identified in the original publication. These retractions are intended to alert readers, researchers, and the academic community that the work is unreliable or flawed.

Retractions can be prompted by various reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Serious errors or flaws: If the research is found to have fundamental errors or flaws that undermine the validity of the findings
  • Scientific misconduct: This includes data fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, or other unethical practices
  • Ethical concerns: In cases where there are ethical violations in the conduct of the research or reporting of results. (i.e. research was conducted without necessary permissions and approvals)

Retractions are serious and you want to avoid getting into a situation like this. If you do find yourself in a situation where a retraction is being considered, then cooperate with the editor fully. Remember that it's better for you and everybody that a seriously flawed paper is retracted.

Here are three examples of retraction reports in Plos One.

Steps to take when you find a mistake in your manuscript

Here is a step-by-step guide on what to do if you have a mistake in your paper:

  1. Assess Timing and Severity: If you still have opportunity to make corrections because your paper is in between the submission and final publication stage, then simply make the correction at your next opportunity. Even more major corrections can be made at this stage, but you have to be transparent with the editors and reviewers about the changes. If the paper is already published by the journal, then consider the potential impact of the mistake on the overall integrity and validity of the research. If the error is so minor that it does not impact the integrity or validity of the research, nor does it significantly hinder a reader's ability to understand your research, then you may consider just leaving it. If the error does impact the integrity or validity of the research, and/or understandability, then you will want to consider the next steps.
  2. Inform Co-authors and Agree to a Plan of Action: If you have co-authors, contact all of them to explain the identified mistake and work toward reaching a consensus on the appropriate steps to take.
  3. Inform the Editor of the Journal: Write a clear and concise letter to the editor of the journal where your manuscript has been published. Clearly describe the nature of the mistake and its implications. Include any necessary supporting documentation, such as corrected figures or passages of text, to assist the editor in understanding the issue.
  4. Follow Editor's Guidance on Next Steps: After submitting your letter to the editor, be patient and wait for their response. Editors may need time to assess the situation and consult with reviewers or editorial board members. If the editor suggests specific actions, such as issuing a correction or retraction, cooperate fully with the editorial process. Provide any additional information or materials requested to facilitate the resolution.

Remember, the key throughout this process is transparency, collaboration, and a commitment to upholding the standards of scientific and scholarly integrity. Unintentianal mistakes happen, and addressing them responsibly is important for being a part of the broader academic community.

Person typing on keyboard.
It's not a bad thing to publish a correction notice, or even request a retraction if you really have to. It means that you want to present your work as accurately as possible. If you think you may need to publish a correction notice, connect with the editor of the journal to explain your concern. They will then guide you from there. Every journal has its own policies and procedures.


Is it ever too late to correct a published article?

Authors should always consider their ethical obligation to correct published articles, regardless of the time that has passed. Whether to do this or not will depend on the extent and impact of the mistake, as well as the practical feasibility of correction. So, no, it's never too late. But, it's also not always necessary.


In conclusion, mistakes can happen to anyone, even in published papers. It's essential to approach them with a proactive mindset, evaluate their implications, and take action to correct them, if necessary. The key is to prioritise accuracy wherever possible and ensure that your research contributes to the advancement of knowledge in your field. But don't beat yourself up if you find an unintentional error, they are common, and minor ones may not require any action from you except to forgive yourself and move on.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What do I do if I have a mistake in my published paper?

If you discover a mistake in your published paper, the first step is to not freak out. It's fine and mistakes happen. After you have calmed down, assess the severity of the mistake. If it is a severe mistake, then you can contact the journal editor and provide a detailed explanation of the mistake. The editor will guide you in the next steps, which may include issuing a correction. Most editors will appreciate your diligence in bringing the issue to their attention and will work with you to ensure that the correction is made appropriately.

What if there is a typo in my published paper?

It generally accepted in the academic publishing community that minor typos in papers are common. While every effort is made to eliminate typographical errors prior to publication, they still get through and it's not always necessary to correct them. Journals recognise that small errors may occur and typically prioritise the formal corrections process for more substantial issues. If you believe the typo interferes with the reader's ability to understand your research, then it is appropriate to contact the editor and ask whether they would be willing to correct it.

Can I correct a mistake in a published paper even after its publication?

Yes, you can correct a mistake in a published paper even after its publication. Each journal has its own procedures for this and the journal editor will help guide you through the process.

Is it bad to issue a correction notice?

Not at all. If anything it shows that you are thorough and want to uphold academic integrity as much as possible.

Additional Resources

Taylor and Francis: Corrections to Published Articles

APA Style: Correction Notices

Plos One: Corrections, Expressions of Concern, and Retractions

Nature: Correction and Retraction Policy

Hi! I'm Dr Jayne Wilkins.

I'm a research scientist and academic publishing coach. I've been writing, reviewing, and editing academic publications for 12+ years.

In 2021, I achieved my long-time ambition to publish in Nature (woot woot 🎉).

Want to publish your research?

I can help you finish and submit that manuscript.

Learn More About Me

How to Publish a Journal Article

The First 7 Steps Checklist

This free checklist is for graduate students, PhDs, and early career researchers who want to publish a journal article and share their awesome reseach with the world 💪

Perfect for those publishing their first paper, or those with a few published already.

The checklist:

⏩ Provides step-by-step guidance

⏩ Sets foundations to make writing and publishing faster and easier

⏩ Clarifies most important considerations

Emailed straight to your inbox

No spam. Easy unsubscribe.