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I have finished my Phd in maths shortly. A few days ago, I have heard a revision decision from a very good journal where I submitted my paper. The comments from referees are generally fairly positive, and are not too difficult to address. However, I have found a mistake in a theorem proof, which the referees have not spotted. This mistake is difficult to fix, or may be unfixable. The theorem is the extension of the main result of the paper. I assume it is not an important result, as there are no comments or revisions from referees on this part. Then how to write to the referees to address this issue? I imagine it would annoy both the referees and the editor. When I am going to submit the revision, is it better to remove the wrong theorem or to keep it there? Many thanks.

1 Answer 1

You absolutely have to advise the editor and referees of the error, and either correct or remove the erroneous part. It doesn't matter how much it annoys them, or even if it leads to the rejection of your paper. Keeping it there would be totally unacceptable and unethical.

Just tell the editor straight out:

"I discovered an error in the proof of Theorem 1.2.3. It does not seem to be fixable, so this theorem should be removed from the paper. The rest of the paper is unaffected [assuming that it actually is]."

The editor will probably ask the referees to re-review the paper with this information. It might change their decision, or it might not. But even if it gets rejected, that's something you just have to live with: fix the paper and submit it somewhere else.

You seem to be assuming that the referees noticed the error but decided not to say anything about it in their review. I doubt that. It's far more likely that they didn't notice it at all. Referees are humans and not omniscient gods, and just because they overlook an error does not mean it is okay to publish it.