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A few months ago a very well-known (and controversial) authority in my field published a theoretical model of a phenomenon that one of my collaborators addressed many years ago. Interestingly, the paper does not reference my collaborator's work at all, even though the authors of this new paper are well aware of it, and have carefully cited "around" it.

My initial response was not to respond, but then I noticed striking similarities between specific paragraphs in the paper and my collaborator's work. The authors reach the same conclusions as my collaborator, but using a model they have developed. Though it doesn't qualify as plagiarism, it annoys me when "new" ideas are proposed without crediting those who originally proposed them. Of course this happens all the time, but I have never been in a position to respond.

My question is how should I respond to this paper, and whether I should respond at all. My collaborator has ceased publishing in this field, and was not interested in responding (but wouldn't mind if I did). Otherwise I have had mixed responses from colleagues, everything from "it happens all the time", to suggesting that I write to the authors or the editor of the journal. Another point to consider is that the senior author is on the advisory board of the prestigious journal the paper was published in.

  • What field is this, please? – Buffy Sep 17 '18 at 11:12
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    There is a lot left unsaid here. Do the authors claim a new idea, or only a new approach to an old idea? Is there any evidence here or elsewhere suggesting that rejecting the old work is appropriate? I math, for example, a theorem could be proved in a new way, and an older flawed proof might not be mentioned at all as a curtesy to another. That would be perfectly valid. – Buffy Sep 17 '18 at 11:41
  • Sorry, I should have written courtesy. Actually, curtesy is a word with a completely different meaning. – Buffy Sep 17 '18 at 13:49
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    The field is theoretical biology, though I would prefer not to specify further. The purpose of the new paper is to present a new formal model of some phenomenon. My issue with the paper is that the problem and the solution are presented as novel, while the same problem and a very similar solution (but without the model) were presented previously, and these are not cited. – Caharpuka Sep 17 '18 at 15:46
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    Was the well-known authority the first author? They might be in the dark themselves about the earlier paper, just like the reviewers apparently were, and were hoodwinked by a postdoc or student. Big name profs are quite busy and sometimes delegate more freedom than they should to students and postdocs. You could start by notifying them directly. I'd suggest being very polite. "Hi I found your recent paper very interesting, and thought you may be interested in some similar work we did in...". Then at least next time they should cite your paper properly. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 17 '18 at 16:13
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From what you have described, it is unlikely that the author's decision to omit mention of the previous paper would constitute any breach of the journal's policies, or any violation of academic integrity requirements. You have stated your assessment that this is not a case of plagiarism, notwithstanding some similarities between the present paper and the previous paper. If that assessment is correct then you are really just talking about a decision by the author to omit mention of a previous paper, which is a decision that is within his discretion as a researcher, and which has gone successfully through peer review.

Since there is no evident breach of policies or academic integrity standards, the journal is unlikely to change the article unless its authors request an addendum. You could either write to the authors suggesting this, or you could try to publish your own "letter to the editor" supplementing the information in the recently published paper by mentioning the previous work. A letter to the editor could draw attention to the omitted work in a respectful way, noting the similarities of the ideas in the two papers, and noting the way in which the present paper formalises the previous idea with a new model. That would make a nice supplement for readers who are unfamiliar with the previous work. Of course, there is no guarantee that the editors would publish it, but if you feel strongly about this, it might be worth a try. If you can say something valuable about the connection between the two papers then the editors might decide that it is a worthy supplement.

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    This was my conclusion, and I drafted a letter to the authors, but I was then convinced to ignore it by the apathy of my other colleagues. The journal asks that the authors be contacted directly before submitting a letter. Anyway you have worded it well. I am still skeptical whether a letter (to the authors or the journal) would have any effect, given that it can appear to be a very insignificant oversight on the part of the authors. – Caharpuka Sep 27 '18 at 22:33
  • Yes, I suspect it will not get traction. – Ben - Reinstate Monica Sep 27 '18 at 22:54
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I don't know if this is field dependent, but I would definitely recommend contacting the journal editor as, in my field, one of the questions asked of reviewers is "has this paper correctly cited previous relevant work". Maybe the reviewer was just not aware of your previous colleague's contribution (although in my opinion, a thorough reviewer should be doing their own literature search to check the authors have done this), but the journal should be made aware that they haven't cited something relevant to their work.

Science (in the current state of career progression based on paper and citation counts) relies on us all being honest and giving credit where it is due to other researchers. As a community, we need to be vigilant about this and not let occasional egotists claim originality if others have contributed to the topic. Also, since your colleague is no longer working in this field I think they should be grateful to you for taking up this point.

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Publish a technical report version of your work (or update any existing report) and include a critique of the new paper.

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I wouldn't write to the authors or to the editor. If your collaborator does not want to respond, why would you?

You can, of course, mention your collaborator's results during conferences or when talking to other scientists. In fact, if your field is anything like mine, most of your colleagues will already have noticed that this paper does not bring anything new to the table.

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