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A few months ago, I submitted a manuscript. After the reviews were completed I received a rejection decision from the Associate Editor (AE). The rejection was based on the basis of a single rejection recommendation by one of the four reviewers. The journal has very high standards so this is not uncommon. However, the reason for the rejection appears really awkward to me. The reviewer wrote in his/her report that another paper with a similar idea was submitted (not published) in another journal. He/she wrote that the submission date of the other paper was earlier than mine so the originality of my idea is questionable. The AE agreed with this report and adopted this argument in the rejection letter.

I want to emphasize that my results were independently developed and I have no knowledge whatsoever of the other manuscript which according to the reports that were attached has not been published yet. The whole situation seems rather awkward and I am not sure how to react. Of course the reviewer's identity is not known to me, but I find it hard to believe that he/she is not an author or somehow related to the author of the other paper.

Furthermore, I feel really offended by these comments as it appears to me that I am implicitly being accused of plagiarism. I am considering writing a letter to the Editor in Chief. I do not want to change the decision, but I would like to make clear that my results were independently obtained. Also, what are your thoughts on how should I proceed with my manuscript?

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    Is the other manuscript available as a public preprint, or is there any way you could reasonably have been expected to know about it? I still don't think that would be reason to reject your paper, but it might create an expectation that you would cite their paper and acknowledge priority. – Nate Eldredge Mar 26 '18 at 0:19
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    There's a dilemma here: if you are going to submit to another journal, time is of the essence, because the longer you wait, the harder it will become to convince people that your work was independent. But if you are going to protest this decision, in hopes of getting the paper accepted after all, you shouldn't submit to another journal in the meantime. – Nate Eldredge Mar 26 '18 at 0:23
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    (While I don't agree with the editors decision...) submitting a similar paper as something which is already out there (or not really, as in your case) isn't necessarily plagiarism. Far from that actually, in most cases. It's just nothing new, a mere replication of previous work, and therefore not of interest for many journals. Therefore, I don't see where you have (implicitly) been accused of plagiarism? – Mark Mar 26 '18 at 0:34
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    @Mark Regarding plagiarism: Maybe I am overeacting here. For clarification the exact phrasing was "The originality of this idea is questionable". – CTNT Mar 26 '18 at 0:40
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    @CTNT I do not think this is an accusation of plagarism but rather a statement that the paper is not making a novel contribution. – Jack Aidley Mar 26 '18 at 7:19

10 Answers 10

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I don't think there is any point in writing to the EiC, if you don't want to actually appeal the decision. I would simply send a note to the AE who handled the paper:

Thank you for handling my paper. I accept your decision. I would simply like to state that the results in my paper were obtained independently, and I had no previous knowledge of the unpublished manuscript mentioned by Reviewer #4. I will look forward to reading and citing this paper when it becomes publicly available.

Then submit your paper somewhere else, quickly (though after making any revisions suggested by these reviewers). I would be inclined to include a comment to the new journal's editor, saying that you have heard there is a paper under review somewhere with similar results, but you have been unable to obtain a copy of the paper or any further information about it. You could also emphasize that you have obtained your results independently of any other reseacher / group.

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    Thank you for your answer. I was considering this exact option. Submit an improved version of the paper based on the comments of the other reviewer's which were really helpful. They posed some extra questions which I managed to answer and as a result an improved algorithm was obtained. However, there is always the risk of being rejected again if the other paper is published. – CTNT Mar 26 '18 at 1:05
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    @CTNT "there is always the risk of being rejected again if the other paper is published". That's why Nate Eldredge suggests you should submit elsewhere quickly. – camden_kid Mar 26 '18 at 8:09
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    @DmitryGrigoryev According to the OP the manuscript "was submitted (not published) in another journal". – camden_kid Mar 26 '18 at 8:45
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    @DmitryGrigoryev: Without reading the similar work, or even really knowing anything about it, that is impossible to answer. This in itself is reason enough to submit your own work and let the community decide. The similarities could be small or large. – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 26 '18 at 11:25
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    This sounds like a sketchy reason to reject, and the editor is not doing a good job with conflicts of interest or with transparency. The reviewer, who has not given you a precise reference to the related work, is not providing a constructive review. The only disadvantage of asking the editor for clarification/reconsideration is the time it takes for him/her to get back to you. So Nate's approach of going elsewhere now may be best (to reduce delay). Also, you can always submit an arxiv version today to get a timestamp (assuming the journals you submit to allow arxiv): arxiv.org – Michael Mar 26 '18 at 18:50
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There are many cases of simultaneous discoveries in history, so don’t let others take your credit when it’s not justified. This story could also be inspiring.

  1. If your field has a preprint culture and your target journals allow for this, publish a pre-print of your paper immediately. This way you can establish with a certain confidence that you arrived at your results independently – assuming that there is no pre-print of the alleged other paper (and even then, the difference in time may be sufficiently short to be regarded as evidence for independent discovery).

    If you cannot publish a pre-print, at least obtain a time stamp of your paper. While it may not help you in the and, at least some ways (in particular publishing a hash of your paper) are almost no effort.

  2. I would argue that the only acceptable evidence of the other paper is the paper itself. Now how could the journal have obtained this?

    • The other paper is publicly available (e.g., on a pre-print repository) or its authors have allowed for a free dissemination of the pre-print. In this case, you should be given the information needed to access the paper.

    • The reviewer had the paper under some restrictions and shared it with the journal. This very likely means that the reviewer violated these restrictions (peer-review confidentiality or trust by the authors). I can contrive some exceptions like the authors sharing the paper with the reviewer and allow them to share it if they happen to peer-review a similar paper – but that’s, well, contrived.

    • The other paper’s authors explicitly gave it to the journal that rejected your paper (or agreed that it is given to them). This poses the question: How did the authors of the other paper know about this, or how did the journal know whom to ask? Keeping in mind that the reviewer cannot ask the authors back without breaching peer-review confidentiality, this leads us to slightly modified variants of the previous points: If the reviewer can freely share the identity of the other paper’s author, they can also share it with you. If the reviewer cannot freely share the identity, they almost likely breached some kind of trust.

    • The reviewer was able to share it due to being an author of the paper. This is a clear conflict of interest.

    • The journal doesn’t have the paper and just relies on the reviewer’s word.

    Either way, this would be very fishy and I see good reasons for appealing to the journal’s decision (or making a scandal out of it).

  3. The existence of another paper going in a similar direction does not mean that you plagiarised it, but it does evidence that the topic is indeed relevant. Moreover, if the other paper has not been accepted yet, it may very well that the peer review found flaws that your paper doesn’t have. All of this are good arguments for any journal (either the one that rejected your paper or another one) to accept your paper, if the quality of the research is undisputed.

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    @TripeHound: The question explicitly excludes this case: “The reviewer wrote in his/her report that another paper with a similar idea was submitted (not published) in another journal.” – Wrzlprmft Mar 26 '18 at 13:37
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    @Wrzlprmft There's a similar question (Should I disclose to the editor that I am reviewing a similar paper by different authors for a different journal?) although the time-scales are different. May try my own question. – TripeHound Mar 26 '18 at 14:30
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    @TripeHound: The time scales are not so relevant for the answers, so I would consider the proposed question a duplicate. That question however containss some interesting tangential information for this one. – Wrzlprmft Mar 26 '18 at 14:44
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    The third point seems quite important here. Does an earlier but more flawed manuscript truly have priority here? I am thinking of submitting this as a separate question... – Dawn Mar 26 '18 at 15:39
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    This could potentially be an interesting case for COPE. – Roland Mar 27 '18 at 12:37
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I disagree with some of the interpretations you're being offered.

Given that you've reached a stage of peer review, you are entitled to a rigorous review supported by the current state-of-the-art of your field that is accessible to any expert of the field. This does not include super-secret documents that nobody has privilege to disclose. If the referee in question cannot point you to an accessible abstract or preprint, the document in question should not be part of the referee's review. Simply put, the referee, if he or she cannot ignore the privileged information for the purposes of review, is in conflict, and submitting the review as you received it was not wise (the story is slightly different if the manuscript referred to is floating around the offices as a submission to the journal you submitted to, as the section editor holds the information).

Further, if the secret manuscript in question is from the group or recent coauthor of the referee (assuming it even exists), that referee probably has committed a fairly serious ethical breach by not exposing the conflict when it became apparent.

What to do? There probably isn't a great answer. If the main reason for rejection was the submitted document referred to, my suggestion would be to respond to the reviewing editor with the opinion that you feel you're entitled to a review informed by the available state-of-the-art; the review you received wasn't. Thus, you feel that this referee is in conflict (indeed, this would be a sound and punctate basis for an appeal). Request an additional review, with the review in question tossed. You should consider asking if the secret manuscript in question comes from the referee's group -- in which case the editor should strongly consider not using that referee in the future.

Whether you cc the EiC is up to you. It's a tough call.

Alternatively, simply resubmit to another journal. I would be less inclined to do this, as I think a fair review process is worth defending. If you decide to appeal, I recommend making a point of asking the editor for a timely decision as to whether you will receive a re-review.

A few additional points -- nobody is accusing you of plagiarism. Also, published manuscripts typically contain the dates of the original submission, so provenance of the ideas is not really at issue.

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    No kidding! The reviewer behaved unethically and crazily inappropriately! And the editor went along with it! And, yes, I've seen a number of instances of peoples' papers getting rejected for such reasons! Without recourse! Starts to make a person suspect there's not a level playing field in many circumstances... In any case, indeed, the questioner here should not feel they have to defend themselves in any way! Jeez... my condolences for getting such a raw deal, not that I have any good advice for how to surmount it. – paul garrett Mar 27 '18 at 19:09
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    Thank you for your contribution. Based, on the answers I have received so far, I decided to send an e-mail to the Senior Editor to ask him to investigate if there was any inappropriate action during this review process (such as conflict of interest of the Reviewer). However, I am not inclined to appeal the decision unless the AE handling the paper and the Reviewer are replaced. – CTNT Mar 27 '18 at 23:00
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    @CTNT You may want to add that as additional information in your question, for all to see. – camden_kid Mar 28 '18 at 15:37
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    I'll second @camden_kid's suggestion, and add that I'm sure many people here would appreciate an update on the final outcome, whenever that may be. – craq Mar 29 '18 at 18:01
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    @user71659 -- First, nobody claimed that one is entitled to have a manuscript published. Second, we have no way of knowing that this is a big-name journal, or that the author is chasing those targets. Third, I already said that the situation is slightly different if the earlier publication is "in house", and lastly, I think it's pretty clear that I mean once the paper reaches a review stage, there is a certain level of criteria that are unallowable. The referee should not have included this privileged info. Once offered, the editor should have ignored it without being urged to do so. – Scott Seidman Apr 1 '18 at 22:47
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If the other work hasn't been published, it sounds unreasonable to claim plagiarism. The reviewer could have conceivably claimed plagiarism of prior related published work, but didn't.

Since the lack of citation was the only objection, you can try asking for the contact details of the author(s) so you can review and cite their work, with a view to resubmitting your own paper afterwards.

Personal correspondence can be cited and properly attributed, so I don't see a technical issue here so long as you don't reference the identity of the reviewer in your correspondence. Even if the reviewer was the other paper's author, it's the author-role (on the other paper) that you're interacting with, not their role as reviewer of your own paper.

In relation to writing to the editor, I don't see any harm in protesting your innocence regarding plagiarism. However note that as reviews aren't normally published (so in theory, there's no wider circulation of the plagiarism claim) and since it's your word against the reviewer's, there might not be much practically that can be done, beyond a file note that they have received your correspondence.

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    I don't think the problem is (only) the lack of citation, but that there is no point in publishing the same findings twice, and the other manuscript found it first. – cag51 Mar 26 '18 at 0:22
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    Thank you for your answer. I have to agree with @cag51 This is not only a citation issue. If the other paper is published then I will have to complete rewrite the paper in view of their findings and remove any similar developments/proofs.. – CTNT Mar 26 '18 at 0:58
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    @cag51 "there is no point in publishing the same findings twice" If the results/findings were derived or obtained in different ways where neither are trivial then both seem to be useful publications to me. – JAB Mar 26 '18 at 2:55
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    @JAB Agree, but OP describes this as a top-tier journal, so only the first result is likely significant enough for acceptance (modulo some details, of course). My comment was mostly disagreeing with the statement that "the lack of citation was the only objection" -- I think there are two issues here, the novelty of the work being the more important. – cag51 Mar 26 '18 at 3:08
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    @Najib The assistant editor stated that the other paper had an earlier submission date. While the OP couldn't have known this, that's probably all you can go on as to who "found" it first (unless you can show the other author(s) delayed submission significantly). – TripeHound Mar 26 '18 at 12:08
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I would actually suggest to write a letter (or email) to the EiC, cc'ing the associate editor, and state for the record that you have no knowledge of the other manuscript and that your results were (therefore) developed completely independently. While the decision to accept or reject your paper is of course fully up to the editors, it seems to me that two studies who come independently to the same conclusion are both worthy of a publication. The editors could even add (or request you to add) a "note added in proof" stating that they are aware of another paper on the same topic being refereed in a different journal, or whatever else they might want to mention specifically in this context.

Full disclosure, I also published a paper a few years ago whose main results were also found independently by another team around the same time (in that case both papers were submitted to the same journal), and both papers ended up to be published in the same issue.

Good luck!


3

This is a horrible thing to happen.

If the other reviewers are favourable then this is a horrible reply to receive because there is nothing that you can do about it. No way to challenge what you cannot see.

I had an instance of one reviewer rejecting an article and throwing up spurious reasons. ... In that case it was necessary to

  • politely but firmly point out that the unfavourable reviewer might have a vested interest in preventing publication

  • request an alternative reviewer to take their place given that their comments were spurious.

I would be writing back to the AE and saying that given the other 3 reviewers recommend publication and there is nothing in the public domain to prevent publication it should be published.

I would also be talking to your trusted senior colleagues in your department/area of work about this.

So sorry to hear about this, very frustrating.....

BUT it is an acknowledgement that your work is good and worthy of publication that the only thing a reviewer can think of to prevent publication is that someone else is already working on it.

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I feel the reviewer is referring to the preprint of the manuscript that I guess you have missed out. Write the editor to send you a copy of that manuscript which he believes is very similar to yours. Go through that manuscript and find out how it is different from yours(I hope there should be some different results if you have obtained the results independently). Try to convenience the reviewer how your results are different then the other one.

I am afraid if the reviewer is not convinced and don't accept the manuscript, you need to rework on your manuscript and send it to the other journal.

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    If there was a publicly available, I'm sure the reviewer would have given full details. Since they didn't, I would assume that they are either an author of the other manuscript (in which case they probably won't want to break anonymity) or they know about it only because they reviewed it (in which case they can't share it). – David Richerby Mar 26 '18 at 11:00
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I was in a similar situation, but on the other side. My results have been submitted but not published. Someone else took advantage of them in the meantime by obtaining my results, probably through a chain of common colleagues who didn't take "please treat confidentially" that strictly.

I want to emphasize that my results were independently developed and I have no knowledge whatsoever of the other manuscript which according to the reports that were attached has not been published yet.

There is little chance to check this in a transparent way. In my case, the submitter acted exactly the same way as you did, claiming innocence. The sucker got his/her material published, while, in fact, he/she stole my work. You can imagine how offended I was!

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    The question is how to proceed, not if anyone else experienced something similar. – Matthew Read Apr 1 '18 at 19:03
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I understand your disagreement with the AE's decision, and I also understand why you feel the reviewer's role in this is slightly awkward. You could point this out to the AE or to the editor-in-chief - this may improve their reviewing process in the future. However, I'd be very surprised if the journal reverses its decision or write you anything else than a message that essentially says "we stand behind our decision." So if you do this, you should also send your paper to another journal.

If your priority is to get your paper published as quickly as possible, I don't think there's anything to be gained by emphasising your disagreement or going to the editor-in-chief. Since you already have favourable reviews at this journal, steering towards a coordinated publication (inspired by Wrzlprmft's answer) seems the quickest option.

This would be a three-step process:

  1. Start by asking the AE whether they'd be interested in a coordinated publication of the two papers, given that three out of four reviewers were impressed with your paper. At the same time you can stress the originality of your work, and touch on the improvements you've made after reading the reviews.
  2. If the AE is interested, you go ahead and figure out who wrote the other paper - your supervisor can ask around.
  3. Finally, ask the authors of the other paper whether they'd be interested in coordinated publication.

In case the AE or the other paper's authors are hesitant about this, or if you do not get an answer in a reasonable timeframe, I'd submit to another journal.

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    Re “there isn’t anything to be gained”: you don’t think there’s anything to be gained from fighting against bad review practices? Maybe not in the short run (and it’s an uphill battle) but aren’t we duty-bound to ensure that good practices prevail? – Konrad Rudolph Mar 28 '18 at 11:25
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    @KonradRudolph Thanks, that's a good point and I edited my answer accordingly. I'm a big fan of picking your battles and this one does not seem winnable. Then again, fighting for good practices may be effective even if the battles aren't necessarily won. Food for thought for me! – Designerpot Mar 29 '18 at 7:16
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I agree with the previous answers stating that you aren't being accused of plagiarism. Rather, if the journal is so selective, they may not want to touch something that is going to appear somewhere already. Do consider the possibility that the reviewer may have shared details of this other paper with the editor- reviews typically contain a section that goes only to the editor. This may explain why the reviewer's decision was accepted.

Also, I know you have a strong feeling about bias (I would too), but there is a chance that this reviewer simply reviewed the other paper. If this is the case, raising questions about the integrity of review (even indirectly) could lead to unfavourable perceptions.

I would strongly suggest publishing in the next highest rated journal at the earliest- you clearly have a good set of results, don't hold them back. Once both papers are out, let the community decide which one is better. It is not unheard of that a paper in a slightly lower rated journal gets more reads/citations that one in a higher rated journal. If indeed the reviewer is an author of the other paper, it means you and they are going neck-to-neck, and you might find the situation reversed soon!

protected by Alexandros Mar 27 '18 at 19:01

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