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So I have been trying to get an article accepted since 2016. It is an article dedicated to a machine learning based prediction of a biological dataset. It was rejected 4 times. Today, on searching, I found that another paper has been published in Bioinformatics journal (Oxford) on 2018 April. This articles aim is exactly the same as mine. The feature set used is a superset of mine, only the classifier used is different than my current work. My work was rejected several times, so I have changed many things for every new submission. I also noticed that the issues that my previous reviewers had with my work, those same issues are still there in the Bioinformatics manuscript. This work in Bioinformatics has been done by 12 people while I am doing this work alone, with my advisor. Had it been accepted, it would have been the first paper with that aim. Now I feel terrible and I do not know how to deal with this professionally as well as emotionally. I suspect plagiarism by one of these many reviewers that this paper went through. I have been toiling for the last 2 years to get that work accepted. My advisor does not want to go for challenging plagiarism. What should I do?

On reading the manuscript I have found several flaws in it. The major flaw is its execution time is way more than my work. Now even if I try to get my work published, would anybody accept it since their work is already in a good journal like Bioinformatics?


I have tried to explain to myself that I have more work to publish, but it seems that I cannot. I am going through a lot of emotional turmoil. I have been crying incessantly for the past 24 hours... I am unable to understand how to get my positive attitude back. Please help...

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    Why do you believe it to be plagiarism rather than parallel work? – Buffy Jul 20 '18 at 11:44
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    @SolarMike, that isn't strong enough evidence. – Buffy Jul 20 '18 at 12:05
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    There is a lot of work, and a lot of parallel work going on. It would be unwise to go for a plagiarism accusation without very strong evidence. Does OP have this evidence? – Captain Emacs Jul 20 '18 at 12:11
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    Just realize the real hazard is the emotional trap you are already stuck in – mathreadler Jul 20 '18 at 16:43
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    This reads as the nightmare of every scientist. I really feel sorry for you. The problem is: you could be right and you could be wrong. I feel there are little words for comfort now because I also would feel horrible in that same situation. What to do? You are more than this research and paper. You will develop new ideas and new research. Being a scientist is dealing with huge disappointments. I really hope in five years time you will smile about this situation, even if time would prove you are right. Be the shining light and the better person. There is much more in life waiting for you. – user93911 Jul 20 '18 at 17:24
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I'm going to suggest that it may not be plagiarism at all, but just parallel work. I don't have evidence one way or the other of course, but please consider the following points.

First, I hope that your advisor is satisfied with your work and that your advancement toward a degree is not at risk here.

Second, a charge of plagiarism is very serious. It is career ending in many cases and can be career ending for an accuser if it is judged to be a false charge.

Third, parallel work is very common - especially in popular research areas. If two researchers start out at the same time they have access to all of the same tools, datasets, publications, etc. In particular, if they are connected to the "grapevine" they have access to the general feeling in the community about what is important and which lines of inquiry are "ripe" for exploration. In fields that have seen a lot of activity over a long time (mathematics, say), this is less likely as the questions get increasingly esoteric and the field becomes a web of narrow concerns. But working in esoteric fields has its own difficulties, of course.

Fourth, your failure to publish could be due to a lot of things. It may just be that the reviewers of the other work had lower standards than those who reviewed yours. You can't control that, of course. But it may be flaws in your paper as, I hope, would be detailed in reviewer reports you received over time. It may just be that the reviewers found the other work more comprehensible. It may even be just timing. The paper landed at a time when some of the reviewers were actually looking for a paper like that.

You may never be able to publish this work as you suggest, but you can move beyond it and publish future work based on it and the knowledge and skill you developed in exploring it.

The only way that I can see it as potential plagiarism is if one of your early reviewers unethically took your idea and specifically set a student to exploit it while rejecting your work. I don't think that is impossible, but shouldn't be a concern with reputable journals. If it is, then the whole structure of review falls apart.

But two people having the same, even detailed, idea at the same time isn't plagiarism. It isn't even uncommon. Similarity of result isn't plagiarism. Ideas are free for everyone. Direction of approach to solving problems is commonly known within a larger research community.

You might be able to salvage some of your work for a new paper, even without extending it. Focus on what is different from and better than the now published paper. You indicate that there is some of that in your work. You can still make important contributions here, though not the ones you originally hoped for.

I suspect that your advisor understands all of this and so is reluctant to make a charge that, if proved wrong, will destroy your career.

For an exploration about how bad it can be see The Double Helix.

Bad things happen to good researchers. Sad. True. You had a bad experience. Don't let it damage your career.


Let me note in closing, that getting beaten to the punch if it is really just that, leaves you emotionally in about the same place. Mad, sad, devastated. All natural.

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    Max Tegmark writes wisely about getting scooped (beaten to the punch) with physics papers. At first he dreaded it and was heart broken by it. He followed much of the advice in this answer. He grew from it. Now he sort of thrives on the competition, and his fear of getting scooped is surpassed by his passion for discovery in the field as a whole. Of course, it took getting a bit established in the field to gain such confidence. – cr0 Jul 20 '18 at 18:33
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    In "Our mathematical universe : my quest for the ultimate nature of reality" Max Tegmark discusses it at various points, with one chapter titled "The Joys of Getting Scooped". The book goes back and forth between his personal experience as a physicist, and laymen descriptions of the physical phenomenon he researchers. – cr0 Jul 20 '18 at 18:52
  • Something similar happened to my grandfather. He did his research work in Utah in the 50's, and someone across the country was doing the same thing. They both published, but years later the other person got a Nobel Prize. My grandpa isn't bitter at all though - he just says he's far prouder of his family than his research. And he had a fantastic career at an internationally renowned national laboratory. – mgarey Jul 21 '18 at 2:31
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    There's also intermediate possibilities between outright plagiarism and fair play (but I'm not suggesting it's more likely than fair play): that a reviewer who was working on the same thing took action to delay publication. – Kimball Jul 21 '18 at 3:03
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It is possible that one of your reviewers stole your idea. This happens in academia, and reviewer anonymity can hide the person's tracks. This could even be a reviewer with good intentions but who acted unethically by letting a review paper give them some ideas. If you have good evidence to believe plagiarism, you should contact the editor(s) of the journals or conferences to which you have submitted your paper for review and explain the situation.

If you contact the editors, do not assume plagiarism. Simply explain that although this other work was hopefully and probably done in parallel, you have some evidence that it may not have been and you would like to inform them of the potential issue. Then, it is out of your hands, and you should follow all of Buffy's good advice: assume from that point that the other authors were not your reviewers, and were publishing in good faith.

This leaves the question: how can you prevent this in the future? One way that is effective in some fields (I am not sure whether it is common in your field) is to publish drafts and preprints on your website. This allows you to have documented proof that you had an idea first. If it is only a draft, then maybe they do not have to cite it, and their work still may prevent yours from being published. However, if you have a draft online, then at least everyone will know that you are not guilty of plagiarism.

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