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Say you've thought hard about a specific issue in your research and have elaborated a possible answer, interpretation, etc., to tackle it. (I'm not thinking about huge research subjects, but rather small ideas that articulate a demonstration.) You then discover later on, while reading a new paper, that someone has thought about the exact same thing. How do you present your idea on the issue?

On the one hand, you can't pretend that you haven't read what the other paper says about it, both for reasons of intellectual honesty and because the other author (or someone who read his paper) might think that you stole his idea. Citing the other paper is thus somewhat of an obligation.

On the other hand, it doesn't feel right to dismiss your demonstration and just cite the other paper, since, after all, you figured out a solution on your own. Conversely, it seems somewhat pointless (and maybe arrogant), to write explicitly that you reached the given conclusion and only then found the other article.

What to do in such circumstances?

  • Isn't that the point of scientific publishing? To show that people independently reach the same conclusions? Yay science! – corsiKa Jul 28 at 3:35
43

Do not despair: your work likely still has value!

In my experience, it's almost never the case that work addressing the same problem has exactly the same solution or exactly the same approach to gathering evidence. Existence of a previous publication will thus typically make your results smaller and more incremental, but not invalid or duplicative. Some examples of what your work may provide:

  • A second, independent confirmation of a hypothesis
  • Confirmation of a closely related but different hypothesis
  • A different approach that has advantages in some situations and disadvantages in others

There are even good journals like PLOS ONE that explicitly invite replications and "non-notable" incremental work. Thus, if you've got a set of results in hand and you discover somebody else has done much the same, you should still write up your work---just be straight and honest about the smaller size of contribution based on the prior work.

If you're still at the "ideation" stage where you're just thinking up possible work to do, however, then it seems more appropriate to move on and work on something else instead---maybe building on their results.

  • 4
    This answer is good, but I think it is only really applicable to experimental research. You may want to clarify that in your answer. For example, if I find a new proof of a mathematical theorem, then none of your points really apply unless the techniques of the proof are expected to be applicable to other proofs (or allow generalization). – Discrete lizard Jul 26 at 8:14
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    This does not have to be a problem for maths either. Sometimes there are two derivations of a theorem, but only one is useful for future work. So the first proof may be just a proof of the theorem and the second one may allow for a lot of new research based on this point of view on the theorem. – allo Jul 26 at 9:05
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    @Discretelizard For maths: First bullet: Many proofs are so complicated that they take a long time to be widely accepted. A second proof using a different approach might convince more people that the theorem is true and/or that it's worth it to investigate both proofs more closely. Second bullet: It's not necessarily true that it's easy to go from the proof of the first theorem to the proof of the (seemingly) closely related theorem. Third bullet: If the first proof is for existence and you have a constructive proof yours is probably much more important in practice. – Nobody Jul 26 at 10:19
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    @Nobody I understand your point, but to me those are more analogies to what is actually written in the answer. Put another way, if this answer is directly applicable to math, then I'd expect most of the reasoning if your comment to be in the answer! Yes, alternative proofs of theorems known to be true can often be publishable if sufficiently novel (although not as easily, in my (limited) experience), but this is not a trivial claim at all and deserves more attention in an answer that really covers 'mathematical fields' than that this answer does. – Discrete lizard Jul 26 at 10:49
  • In other words, while the general idea that reaching the same results by different means has value is applicable in theoretical fields as well, I think this answer misses a lot of the important details to motivate this claim for theoretical fields in particular. – Discrete lizard Jul 26 at 10:54
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I'd argue that this is pretty common in research. As a consequence, the right thing to do is just cite the paper.

If, however, your derivation/interpretation/explanation is slightly different, you should both cite the paper and present your own work.

It may feel unfair to you, that you don't get credit for coming up with the same solution, but don't worry. If you came up with the same (presumably) correct solution, it shows that you are a good way. You have the right thoughts about good topics. That's good for you.

7

This happens quite a lot if you are working in a field with a lot of current research interest. Things that you know are also known by others. People working parallel tracks can often come to the same insights at about the same time.

If there is nothing novel in your work compared to the other, you just do what you would normally do and explore extensions and deeper results. You can't be denied the satisfaction of having discovered something, even if you don't get public acclaim for it.

Write the next paper.

But, if you think it worthwhile, you can also contact the other author, mentioning that you discovered the same thing independently and exploring whether it is worth working collaboratively. Often this can be a good way to expand your research "neighborhood."

4

Start collaborating with that guy. Simple!.

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