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Is it ethical to slightly improve upon someone's work posted in arxiv and publish before the original work, however citing the original work?

I mean suppose the original work gets rejected in a top-tier journal (generally top-tier journal takes so much time) whereas the improved version gets accepted in a mediocre journal (suppose the mediocre journal is fast in reviewing).

Then what should the author of the original work (I am the author of the original work) should do?

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    It’s ethical, but it doesn’t have the effect that you think it has. When the work is posted on arXiv then it is as good as published for the purpose of establishing priority on the results. Improving it and publishing your improvement “before the original work” won’t mean you get credit for the contributions of the original work because you “publisher first”, or indeed that you will undermine the original author’s credit in any way. You’ll just get credit for the improvements, and if they are only slight improvements, your credit will also be slight. – Dan Romik Jul 14 '18 at 1:38
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    How would you know that the first work was rejected from a top journal? – user9646 Jul 14 '18 at 8:29
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    Try not to use 2nd/3rd person wording ("suppose you're in a situation where...", "hypothetically, what would one do if..."). It's obvious whenever anybody does this that they're really one of the people directly involved in the situation, and they're trying to hide their participation for whatever reason. – knzhou Jul 14 '18 at 16:16
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    In this case, most people here have assumed you are the author of the derivative work. If you're actually the author of the original work, as your comments seem to suggest, you've just gotten a ton of totally useless advice, because you didn't specify who you were in the situation! Just be straightforward next time. – knzhou Jul 14 '18 at 16:17
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    @DanRomik The point is that as written, it's hard to tell if the OP's question is "is publishing the derivative paper ethical" or "what should the author of the original paper do about it". OP has hinted they really care about the second question, but almost everybody is assuming they really were asking the first. I can't even definitely tell either way because it's so vague. – knzhou Jul 14 '18 at 18:01
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I question, as did Dan Romik, your characterization of work posted on arXiv as 'unpublished': it is made available to what amounts to the widest possible public, it is just an un-refereed publication (or perhaps arguably a kind-of very slightly refereed one, if you read the conditions).

I suggest that the ethics of it depend on whether the later-published paper acknowledged the arXiv paper as earlier work, or not. If it did, I see no problem.

If the later paper made no acknowledgement, then maybe there is a problem if its editor/referee(s) happened not to spot the earlier paper in arXiv and took the whole content of the later author as original.

But what the arXiv author could do in that event I could not begin to suggest. Best response would probably depend highly on the particular circumstances, which would no doubt be awkward to set out in this medium.

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    If it's someone else's work, acknowledgement is insufficient to avoid plagiarism. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 14 '18 at 2:03
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: I mean suppose the original work gets rejected in a top-tier journal (generally top-tier journal takes so much time) whereas the improved version gets accepted in a mediocre journal (suppose the mediocre journal is fast in reviewing). Then what should the author of the original work need to do ? – applied_math Jul 14 '18 at 2:07
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    @AnonymousPhysicist acknwledgement is insufficient to avoid plagiarism. That’s incorrect. See the comment I left below your answer. – Dan Romik Jul 14 '18 at 4:31
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    @applied_math you seem to have some misguided notions about publishing. I can’t quite put my finger on the nature of the confusion, but your question “Then what should the author of the original work need to do?” makes no sense. The author of the original work shouldn’t do anything differently than they would have done anyway - if they got rejected from one journal they‘ll submit to another one. There is no reason whatsoever for them to be troubled by the other publication building on their work; if anything, it increases their own credibility and is something they should be pleased about. – Dan Romik Jul 14 '18 at 4:37
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    If the "later paper made no acknowledgment", that is a SERIOUS problem. Using someone else's work without referencing it is one of the best ways to get yourself thrown out of any university, whether staff or student. – Chris Jefferson Jul 14 '18 at 10:13
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As long as you cite the prior work as such and make it absolutely clear what their contribution is relative to yours, then I think you are fine from an ethical standpoint. Papers on arxiv are published in the literal sense of the word, and there is nothing unethical about following up published work.

However, you also want to avoid annoying the other set of authors. The easiest way to do that is to get in touch with them and perhaps ask for feedback on your draft.

Unfortunately, this can be an awkward situation. Some people say they only post on arxiv after their paper is accepted to avoid people following up their work before it is accepted. The first paper deserves full credit.

TLDR: Be generous with giving credit.

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I think the best solution here is to contact the original author. You do not know if the paper was submitted to a journal, what stage of review it is. Who knows, it might be already accepted and will be published tomorrow morning.

How about something along the lines of:

Dear Author Authorson,

I read your work titled "The almost most magnificent work ever done" published on arxiv, and I enjoyed it very much because it is relevant to my work on ABC and it can have implications for DEF. I wanted to ask you several questions.

I have found that by applying the method of X and adding equations Y and Z, the uncertainty is reduced by half. (you might want to be vague enough here to not disclose exactly how you did, otherwise the original author might scoop you on this) Have you thought about this option?

Is your paper submitted? What stage is it in? If possible, I would like to collaborate and potentially improve the paper to make it more suitable for XYZ.

Ideally, this might result in a joint publication for both of you. A win-win situation.

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    +1. Why the downvote? This is exactly what I've done recently a few times: contact the authors and explain my results; if they are interested and want to discuss, propose a collaboration. This indeed is a win-win: they got a chance to improve their work, I'd get a co-authorship and possibly research opportunities for the future (enlarging my network). If the authors don't respond or are not interested in a collaboration, then one has clear conscience to work on it alone (not that doing this from the start is bad - but I personally think this route is the right way to go). – user68958 Jul 14 '18 at 7:35
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A huge chunk of academia is about improving others’ work, whether by independent verification of results, pushing the research envelope, or correcting errors in prior work.

A work that is based on an earlier work should cite it, and clearly mark the point at which the new work begins.

I see 2 question’s posed, with the scenario that E edits O’s original work W1, cites W1, then publishes the edited work W2. W1 is publicly accessible (as opposed to a private letter or similar).

  1. Is E being unethical? If E marks the new work clearly, then that should be fine (think of it as a lit review of sorts). Otherwise, they’re trying to pass off someone else’s work as their own - that’s unethical. Sooner or later, one would expect that the similarity between W1 and W2 would be noticed, especially since W2 cites W1.

  2. What does O do? In the ‘lit review’ setting, O can do a happy dance at being cited. This is academic success - someone thinks the work is good enough to take seriously. In the plagiarism setting, O can write to the publisher of W2, referring them to W1.

Credit to Dan Romik for noting that Arkiv isn’t “unpublished work”, and that credit ascribed to the subsequent author is proportional to the significance of the new work.

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No, publishing someone else's work is plagiarism. It does not matter if that work has been improved or if it is unpublished. It is still plagiarism if you cite and acknowledge them. It is totally irrelevant that the prior work is on ArXiv.

You can publish the improvement, but you must not include someone else's work.

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    I dont interpret this as a plagiarism question. What you say is correct, but I don’t think it really addresses the main point of the question. – Thomas Jul 14 '18 at 2:15
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    It is still plagiarism if you cite and acknowledge them. That’s incorrect. The definition of plagiarism is “the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.” If you cite and acknowledge the earlier work, you are by definition not passing it off as your own. In that case it may still be that your paper is worthless because you didn’t add anything new to build on the earlier work, but you are not committing plagiarism. – Dan Romik Jul 14 '18 at 4:30
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    Again, plagiarism is defined very clearly in the dictionary definition I quoted. As for your supposed counterexample, self-plagiarism is not a special case of plagiarism (though one would be forgiven for thinking that it is - the terminology is illogical and confusing). See this answer for related thoughts. I stand by my earlier comment. – Dan Romik Jul 14 '18 at 7:01
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    If you publish/write your improvements and cite their stuff, it’s not plagiarism. If you publish an improved version of their stuff, it’s plagiarism, even if you acknowledge you didn’t write all of it. Not clear to me what OP meant by “improve upon.” – WGroleau Jul 14 '18 at 12:59
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    @WGroleau the first two sentences of your comment contradict each other. Again, the question of whether it’s plagiarism or not depends only on whether you tried to pass off others’ work as your own (by failing to cite the earlier work and/or using sneaky/dishonest language), not on whether you “publish[ed] an improved version of their stuff” (according to any definition of “improved”, including in the meaning of “not improved at all”) or any other irrelevant issues. The issue of how much you improved on/added to the earlier work affects publishability, not the question of plagiarism. – Dan Romik Jul 14 '18 at 14:16

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