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Location: India

Field: Neuroscience

Background: A few years ago, at the time of joining my PhD, I submitted a proposal which was eventually approved by the institute and the ethics committee. At the time when I proposed this work, there were barely a couple of papers on the topic and it seemed quite novel. Now, I have submitted my thesis and have just received my reviews from two external reviewers. During this time, as expected, many other people have got into the field. Unfortunately for me, I have not been able to publish my thesis results yet, so I have missed out on cashing in on the head start.

Now, one of my reviewer is questioning the novelty of my work. There are still a few novel aspects to my thesis in the sense of how I have approached the problem, although some of the novelty has been lost simply because there are some recent papers that have shown similar, if not the same, results. The important point is that most of these recent papers are in the past 1-1.5 years.

Typically in the kind of PhD program I am enrolled in, one submits a proposal and then works on them till they submit. Modifications are usually not the norm. Part of the reason why I couldn't finish my thesis before these papers started kicking in is wanting to be much more sure about the results (given that I come from a completely different field with zero background), lack of (enough) data at the right time, learning the ropes of the game, and intermediate lack of funding situation (committed funds not arriving at the right time), etc.

Question: In programs like the one I am enrolled in, can one justify novelty based on the fact that when the study was initiated, it was quite novel and that it is only in the past 1-1.5 years that people have started publishing? Another way to look at the question would be: are there any good ways to "post-hoc" justify novelty?

A similar situation (without the PhD context) would be that a reviewer recommends rejection of a novel paper after a similar paper got published (while your paper was under review).

Additional note: my advisor agrees that there are still novel aspects to my thesis and they feel that the reviewer is "asking for too much from a PhD thesis"

Edit: The reviewer has recommended the thesis; this means that I will be writing a response to the comments I have received (including making some corrections/changes as needed) and then there will be a viva/defence

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    Forgive me as I am unfamiliar with the system in India. Does this comment from the reviewer mean that you cannot be awarded the PhD? Are they asking you to do more work/substantially rewrite the thesis? Or is it more of a "minor corrections" situation, where you can address the comments and then the thesis will be accepted? Finally, how much power does your advisor have? Can their opinion change the final outcome? – astronat Dec 29 '20 at 22:30
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    Thanks for raising this point. The reviewer has "recommended" the thesis i.e., it is good enough for to hold the final viva (public defence). I will add this information to the question. The question on the novelty is part of the comments I have received, for which I am drafting a response (a "minor corrections" situation). I would like to get insight from the good folks here on how to address this. My advisor does not have any decision making power. – stuckstat Dec 29 '20 at 22:34
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    I'll add this as a comment rather than an answer so as not to step on the answer of Ethan Bolker, but the doctorate is expected to be done in finite time, whereas research in general has no such limits. Therefore getting scooped needn't mean that you need to start over. The point is to prove that you can do significant work and you do that even when scooped. As long as the advisor agrees and will support you with any committee member you should be fine. In popular fields it would be hard to get a degree otherwise. – Buffy Dec 29 '20 at 22:41
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If your advisor thinks your thesis is acceptable at your school (which seems to be the case) then it's their job to do what's necessary to make that happen. Perhaps that means telling your committee why it is OK even though some of what you discovered has been published while you were working.

Standards for a thesis are not the same as those for publication.

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