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Say for example a physicist (person A) came up with a theory and sent it to a journal. But it was rejected. (As an example, maybe person A came up with the idea for the Higgs particle).

Then 10 years later the same theory was published by someone else (person B). And this time it was published. And maybe they even went on to win the Nobel prize.

Can person A then claim precedence? And then what will happen to the Nobel prize will it go to person A instead?

This must happen quite a lot that papers get rejected but later someone else has the same idea and gets published. What happens in those cases. How do they claim precedence? Or is the polite thing not to make a fuss?

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If the paper was rejected the journal still should have the archive where the manuscript and all communications are preserved. If the paper was rejected and was actually a good paper ahead of its time it will be of great interest to investigate why it was rejected. Of course the more time passes the greater risk that this archived information may be lost but in 10 years it is unlikely.

It is likely that both persons will be mentioned in the history books. The person B may be still considered more important because it was his/her work that actually influenced the scientific community. There were a lot of examples in the history of science when even published work was unnoticed and only later independent work attracted interest. Concerning Nobel Prize... Well, it will be decided by the Nobel Committee that will not surprise anyone by surprising everyone.

Nowadays one can easily share the work placing preprints into a public repository like the mentioned arXiv (where some subjects like gen-phys have a reputation of having quite a low bar). One can also put a preprint into some sufficiently trustworthy repository like one owned by the institute. In the old days before internet preprints existed too. They were sometimes printed as small booklets by the author or printed by the institution. The problem with preprints is that while in theoretical physics it's almost strange not to publish a preprint and journals often encourage and sometimes even require that, in other fields journals sometimes may treat a preprint as a prior publication.

Some priority may be claimed if the work was presented at a conference and something like a presentation and numerous witnesses are available. However this is really unreliable. Because often much less evidence can be provided there are a lot of instances when people claim that some of their unpublished work was stolen and of course no one can prove anything. On the other hand if the work was published as some sort of proceedings (that often have no real peer-review) this claim may be quite solid.

Then there are personal notes and letters that are used by historians. However it is really hard to use it to claim priority when actual interest of living people are involved. Though I remember a smart trick in the history of aluminium electric extraction - one of the authors sent himself several of letters safekeeping the unopened envelopes with official mail stamps and then successfully used those in court to prove his priority.

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The scenario as outlined is extremely unlikely for reasons already outlined in other answers. If one did have a substantial priority claim of this sort the most obvious evidence would be (in no strong order) a) the presence of a preprint b) the presence of a copy of the result on a personal/academic website c) the email records that one sent a copy of the paper to a specific journal and d) the records of the journal. Many journals keep records of all submissions as a general policy. And if one does have strong evidence of priority, people will likely take it seriously.

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Your scenario seems pretty improbable, especially in today's world of published scholarship. If a claimed result for an important problem (worthy of Nobel consideration) were submitted it would receive tremendous scrutiny. If it was rejected, then that wasn't a random or accidental outcome. There was some flaw.

The later paper would also receive tremendous scrutiny and if published, no one found an error or hole in it. So, it is most likely sound. Not necessary, of course, but likely.

The new paper is published. Time passes. More time passes. There is a lot of scrutiny. Much of it is in public, not just private letters of a few academics. The result is eventually seen as so important that the Nobel committee awards the prize. It is extremely unlikely that it would ever be withdrawn if someone else claims priority. "Where have they been all these years?"

In mathematics, for example, proposing a theorem but not having a proof, or providing an incorrect proof is worth very nearly - nothing, though it might spark some inquiry that results in later success.

The Higgs Boson story is instructive. Higgs and Englert won a Nobel, but there was actually prior art on some of it.


I don't know of any field in which there is a formal mechanism for claiming priority after some other work is accepted.

That said, some fields are "hot" and there is a lot of parallel research. All the researchers are working with the same base of knowledge (papers, etc). Priority is almost a random situation.

I know of one example in CS in which two students solved exactly the same problem in the same way at the same time at different (high prestige) universities. It took the community a year to determine that both should get their degrees and share the honor on an important problem in language theory. But the process was very ad-hoc. The underlying reason for the simultaneous result was that there was a lot of interest at the time in answering that question.

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    OK, here's an example. Newton invented Calculus but didn't tell anyone. Then Leibniz got published. But Netwon calimed precedence. – zooby Aug 23 at 22:20
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    Another example. Susskind sent a paper about string theory and it got rejected as too obscure. Later other papers about string theory got accepted. How did Susskind claim precedence as the father of string theory? – zooby Aug 23 at 22:21
  • Another example, Newton sent his theories about white light is made of colours to the Royal Academy. Hooke (his rival) rejected his ideas because he had his own theories. So Newton went into hiding to write a book about gravity. – zooby Aug 23 at 22:24
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    That's exactly my question. What is the precedure for claiming precedence these days? Instead of publicly arguing which doesn't seem very productive. – zooby Aug 23 at 22:26
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    Yes, exactly, appart from being famous, who does he claim this too? Like if he doesn't tell anyone then history will show he didn't think of string theory first. It's only because he's famous that we know otherwise. So wouldn't he write the journal a letter and say "you just published a paper but rejected my paper with the same results? Will you publish mine too?" – zooby Aug 23 at 22:37

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