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Consider the following situation. Scientist A obtained a novel cool result and submitted it to a respected journal after putting the preprint to arXiv. The journal started the peer review process which will take 2 years. During this time scientist B drastically enhanced A's achievements thus making them obsolete. B also put his preprint to arXiv, so the reviewers can easily access it too.

What will happen then? Will the journal publish A's work? If not, why? And what should A do to have any credit for his (pioneer) work?

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    Bonus question: What changes if B is a reviewer of A's paper? – Dmitry Savostyanov Mar 12 '18 at 21:54
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    Anecdote: this happened to me. I ended up with an unpublishable paper on arXiv that person B (and a few others) cited. – Stella Biderman Mar 13 '18 at 4:54
  • Stella Biderman, I am sorry for your situation :( Dmitry Savostyanov, that's a too tricky question for me :) – tim Mar 13 '18 at 7:29
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    @StellaBiderman Sorry to hear that - that's so rough! – user_of_math Mar 13 '18 at 17:16
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There is no way to predict what will happen to your paper or whether you will get credit you find satisfactory. If B is a decent person he/she will choose to to make some acknowledgement of your prior or concurrent work.

This cannot be the first instance of such competing claims for priority. Your journal may have a policy on handing such situations, and it would not hurt to ask, as long as your request doesn't appear to put blame on the journal for delaying your paper.

You don't say what field of science is involved. Does your paper use different methods than B's? Methods which are not made obsolete by B's paper and might lead to other developments? Does anything remain of your paper that is not superseded by B;s? If so maybe you'll be asked to revise your paper to highlight what has not been 'scooped'.

In some fields I know of cases in which journal editors worked out an arrangement for one or two joint paper(s), pretty much to the satisfaction of all. Obviously, that would not always be possible.

  • Thank you for your answer. The situation has not yet appeared so this was more of a hypothetical question. What bothers me is that one might end up in a situation like @StellaBiderman having an unpublishable preprint. Putting behind the 'injustice of fate', this raises concern about citing -- B will have to cite some unpublished work which seems not so good. Another question is whether one should always publish in a fast-reviwed journal to avoid such situations. – tim Mar 13 '18 at 7:20
  • In my potential situation the risk is not that high for my method is more generic and completely different from B's method, however it provides poorer result than B for the most common case. The research area here lies somewhere in discrete mathematics and algorithms. – tim Mar 13 '18 at 7:25
  • Perhaps a revision stressing the generality of your method with a discussion of errors would save the day. Hope so. – BruceET Mar 13 '18 at 8:42
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I’m a junior researcher in CS and this happened to me when I was an undergraduate. To simplify a bit, people are interested in the values that s(f) can take on, where f is a function. There were essentially two known functions that tied for the record for “smallest value of s(f).” I came up with a methodology that lets you construct way more examples, including multiple, unrelated infinite classes of such functions. I also showed how to construct a function with certain desirable properties that also tied that record. I then made a couple conjectures.

I put the paper on arXiv and worked on my conjectures. The professor who was my mentor (but not a co-author) got really busy because he made a travel-the-world-lecturing level breakthrough and my paper fell by the wayside in terms of his priorities. Also, I graduated and took and industry research job so I simply had less time to think about my paper. About two years after I put the paper on arXiv, I get contacted by a conference asking me to peer review a paper. This paper proved some of my conjectures (which I had done, but hadn’t written up), disproved others, and broke the record for the smallest value of s(f). They cited us and credited us with bringing the question to their attention.

Their paper got published and mine still hasn’t. My research mentor hasn’t been very encouraging about publication at this point, about four years after the research was done. From what I understand, there’s no real reason for someone to publish our paper now, except historical interest. I don’t know of any journals that accept “legacy submissions” of unpublished papers that have already been read and advanced by other work. I think the arXiv pre-print has two or three citations now. A side project right now is to combine some of my ideas that didn’t get preempted with new ideas I had after reading their paper (and a few others) into a paper that I can get published. It would be nice to get something published out of my old research.

My understanding is that, unless it’s a monumental result, when this happens you take the loss and call it an unpublished preprint. From a resume POV, I got a little luckier than that: I presented a modified version of the results at a peer-reviewed undergraduate research symposium. The purpose of the symposium though is to help undergraduates who do research have a second set of eyes going over their papers before “real” publication, and it’s expects that most presented papers would get published in journals or presented at “adult” conferences.

As I said, I’m a junior researcher and it’s quite plausible I’m wrong. But this has been my experience. If anyone thinks they know a venue that would be appropriate for my paper, I would love to hear about it. If anyone’s curious about the paper, the problem is the Sensitivity Conjecture and you can find my paper here.

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