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As part of my PhD thesis I extended an existing method to a new problem. I finished my PhD thesis about 5 years ago and graduated afterwards. After graduation I started working in industry. I never published my thesis (or parts thereof) as a paper, since I was mainly focused on working at the beginning and after several years just was not motivated enough, since I was not pursuing an academic career.

Using a simple google search about the topic you would be able to find my PhD thesis even though the content cannot be accessed online, but surely could be accessed by contacting my previous school or the library.

I recently found a published paper that pretty much does the same things that I did for my thesis. It makes the same modifications to the existing method and comes to the same conclusions. My thesis is however not mentioned or cited in the paper. I am not implying any sort of plagiarism. Once you think about the problem, those modifications are very natural. It's just that I came up with them earlier.

As said above, I was never really interested in publishing my thesis, but now that I saw the paper I was thinking: Hey, I was the first! They should have at least cited my thesis!

I am now wondering, what my options would be and came up with the following two possibilities:

  1. Well, tough luck! I never published my results and so it just seems fair that somebody else did (assuming that they came up with them independently).
  2. Write the editor of the journal and inform them that the main message from the paper was already covered in my thesis and thus is not novel research.

So I was wondering, whether number 1 above applies or whether I should go with number 2. Or what would be other possibilities?

  • 1
    Are you sure the thesis is not published? Most uni administrations (that I know) require you to submit the thesis to your university's library. They put the thesis on the internet, if you submit a digital file. tl;dr: Dig up your university's library for your thesis. – Oleg Lobachev Mar 7 at 21:14
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    Technically a doctoral thesis is indeed a publication everywhere that I'm aware of. The whole point of the exercise isn't just hazing and training, but to produce a solid contribution to your research area. – A Simple Algorithm Mar 7 at 23:49
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    @OlegLobachev They're put online but usually behind various types of paywalls with access restrictions. This is important for many humanities because it is expected their thesis will become a book and there is a concern that wide distribution of the thesis will make publishers uninterested. This was an issue when a previous institution tried to make them OA. – user71659 Mar 8 at 0:02
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    @OlegLobachev Yes, mine is, I've checked. The university has free access to all of its own theses, but not necessarily others. It's almost always ProQuest in the US. – user71659 Mar 8 at 0:37
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm It's a publication, but [field dependent] it might not count as a "real" publication. For example, most journals don't count theses as "prior publication", and conventionally theses don't contribute to your h-index. And in instances where publications counts are tallied for things like grant and tenure review, theses usually won't be included. -- Which is a long winded way of saying that even if a thesis is technically a publication, depending on the field it doesn't necessarily count as actually "publishing your results". – R.M. Mar 8 at 20:15
39

The editor is not the person to talk to here, but rather the authors of the paper:

"I was reading your paper and wanted to share that I found something similar to you in my unpublished thesis from 2014, thought this might be of interest to you: (link to or attachment containing thesis)"

No accusations (they've done nothing wrong), nothing combative like contacting an editor (which would imply they did something wrong). There is nothing they need to change with their original paper, but if they do future work to follow up they can now consider citing your work.

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    This would give the authors of the paper the opportunity to compare their approach to the one of the thesis, and publish a short follow-up on their paper. In this follow-up the thesis will be cited, and the record set straight. You can't blame the authors of the paper for not knowing about a thesis that was not available to them. – Dohn Joe Mar 8 at 14:19
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Well, if you did not publish, and your thesis is not available, you really can't complain that somebody else's similar independently performed work is not novel - they had no reasonable way of knowing about your work.

Really, the only way to approach it is the first way. And learn that undocumented work buried in a drawer somewhere does not exist as far as the rest of humanity is concerned. Going forward, document and publish (as appropriate) your work (document for internal business use, publish for the outside world).

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    Well, if you did not publish, and your thesis is not available, you really can't complain that is really the point here! +1. – YYY Mar 8 at 0:12
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    What is known by just one person, is known by nobody - unfortunately, I have no idea where I got this quote from. It just came to mind. – Dohn Joe Mar 8 at 14:17
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    I'm not even in academia and I've heard the maxim, "Publish or perish." – EvilSnack Mar 9 at 22:13
  • @EvilSnack Yes it's a very popular adage. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publish_or_perish – rayryeng Mar 10 at 2:42
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I would suggest something intermediate between your two proposals. There is no reason not to contact the editor and point to your thesis. But don't make a claim that the new work isn't "novel" since it truly is if done independently as seems to be the case.

The one thing you might possibly get is a note, pointing to your thesis, hence to you, that the same ground was covered in an unpublished dissertation. That might happen or not,

But, if you are also still interested in the topic and want to continue to extend it, you can contact the authors also, both congratulating them and pointing to your earlier work. That, along with a suggestion of collaboration in the future.

Independent work is very common. It is especially common in popular research areas. Everyone has access to the same background and many people are thinking along the same lines.

I'll also note that Newton and Leibniz had the same sort of issue, with Newton's early work left "in a drawer".

2

In mathematics at least it is not uncommon that the omission of a key reference be corrected in an erratum, which may also help clarify the accompanying issue of priority.

Assuming that this approach is not entirely field specific, the course of action would be to contact the authors, indicate your priority, provide links to (if available) and bibliographic information on your thesis, and suggest that they submit a short erratum clarifying this.

(If no copy of your thesis is easily available online, consider attaching a copy to your email to the authors.)

Here is an example.

0

Theses are not widely cited. I disagree with this practice. Almost all scientific Ph.D. theses are on Michigan microfiche and are readily abstracted, searchable, etc. But the bottom line is people don't really read them or cite them enough. I have even had a collaborator of mine (buddy of my advisor) publish experiments that duplicated something in my thesis (several years later). That one, bugged me.

But bottom line, lots of people don't look at or consider Ph.D. thesis to be a publication. Really it is. But lots of people don't treat it that way.

I would just ignore it. Oh...and you should have put it in a journal.

  • In my university is was common practice to write papers, and group them in a thesis. There is no use in citing the thesis rather than the papers. – Bernhard Mar 8 at 7:33
-1

Perhaps, you should look at this question: What's the point of PhD theses if nobody reads them?

People do not read theses even when they are publicly accessible. In your case, who want to read your thesis need to overcome the hurdle of contacting your former school or library. (I would suggest putting your thesis on ArXiv if you hope somebody to read it).

Theses are not official publication. And even publications in lower rank conferences are largely ignored, as they are often of low quality.

Nowadays, there are just too many papers to read, and the junk/predatory journals/conferences make the problem worse. So a strategy to optimize the time is to read only papers in well-known conferences, and hope that the authors did a good job in their related work (in good papers, they often do).

No pain, no gain.

Publishing papers in top venues is a pain. But there is also reward on it, otherwise people just goes for easy venue to avoid rejections.

In my field, Computer Science, a PhD student is expected to publish a couple of papers in order to graduate. What other assumption can you make about a thesis without publication?

In your case, you didn't even try to publish your idea, didn't even try to make it accessible, why hoping it get cited?

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    Just because somebody writes a claim in the title of a question does not mean the claim is true. The thread you linked to contains multiple refutations of the claim that nobody reads PhD theses. And it is very much false that theses are not "official" publications. – E.P. Mar 7 at 18:40
  • @E.P. there is no statistic about how many theses are read, but I heard the same claim from several people, from different fields. I guess the people who upvoted that question agreed with the claim. – qsp Mar 7 at 18:58
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    The question you've linked to was on the Hot Network Questions sidebar for a substantial period. I think it's much more likely that most people who voted that question up just agreed that they had heard the claim somewhere, it sounded plausible to them, and they never bothered to dig deeper. Much like you see people throwing that claim around elsewhere on the net (here included) without bothering to qualify it or provide any evidence for it, even when explicitly confronted with evidence that it is false. – E.P. Mar 7 at 19:08
  • @qsp i upvoted that question because the answers accurately refuted the title question, and I thought it would be good for the answers to be seen and hopefully stop the unsubstantiated and anecdotally inaccurate (ime) belief that no one reads theses. – user94036 Mar 9 at 17:58

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