My Master's thesis is due in a week and I am currently writing up all of my results. To my horror, I have just found a paper that seems to explore virtually the same concept as I do, although they appear to generate results that differ slightly from my own. How should I treat this? In my defense, the other paper has only been cited four times according to semantic scholar, but I can't simply ignore its existence despite not having used it to write my own paper.

Edit: this is a master's thesis and my current plan is to add it to the related literature section and mention how and why the two models generate some different results.


You will need to speak to your advisor about this matter, but if the paper is relevant to your research (and it certainly sounds like it is) then you are correct in your view that it should be incorporated into your thesis. If one week is insufficient to do this, I recommend you seek an extension for submission from your supervisory panel. It should not be too difficult to secure an extension in this circumstance, and it is likely that your panel will want you to do the extra work to incorporate this work into your thesis. The golden rule of all research work is to make it as useful as possible for the reader. Adding reference and discussion to this other paper sounds like it will certainly improve your work and give relevant information to the reader about the state of the field.

Finally, in regard to the "horror" you are experiencing, it might aid you to learn that several highly aclaimed researchers have had similar ---but far more horrifying--- experiences of this kind. The most famous case I am aware of is Gottlob Frege, an eminent German philosopher and logician, who wrote his Magnus Opus on logic and arithmetic, only to be informed by Bertrand Russell that one of the core axioms on which the entire theory was based was inconsistent (and therefore the entire theory was invalidated). It is instructive to read the history of this matter (see e.g., here), and it is a fascinating story in the history of mathematics and academic publishing. Russell later remarked on the immense integrity of Frege in dealing with the disappointment of finding out that his life's work was wrong:

As I think about acts of integrity and grace, I realise that there is nothing in my knowledge to compare with Frege’s dedication to truth. His entire life’s work was on the verge of completion, much of his work had been ignored to the benefit of men infinitely less capable, his second volume was about to be published, and upon finding that his fundamental assumption was in error, he responded with intellectual pleasure clearly submerging any feelings of personal disappointment. It was almost superhuman and a telling indication of that of which men are capable if their dedication is to creative work and knowledge instead of cruder efforts to dominate and be known. (Quoted in van Heijenoort (1967), 127) (Quote taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, History of Russell's Paradox)

  • It's not very plausible that it would take more than a week to handle this. Feb 20 '21 at 5:43
  • It really depends on what issues the other paper raises. If the other paper shows some flaw in the analysis method used in the present paper then this could lead to a longer period of redrafting/correction. In any case, the advisor can address this.
    – Ben
    Feb 25 '21 at 9:53

This is up to your advisor and any committee that is involved in accepting the thesis and or the completion of your degree.

"Only four citations" doesn't sound like a good thing, however. If I were on your committee I would wonder whether this is parallel work, and hence fine, or if you should have seen this paper a while ago and adapted to it.

It is a serious issue that may have a good outcome for you or not. Speak to your advisor.

My reaction, in the worst case, other than deceit, would be to send you back to the drawing board to see what extension you might make to give your work a bit more heft. In the best case, parallel work is common and should be accepted for graduation purposes, even if not for publication.

  • When you say that "only four citations" doesn't sound like a good thing, you mean that it indicates the idea is not great, correct? Feb 18 '21 at 16:19
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    No, not at all. I mean that it has been out there for a while if it has been seen and used by several others. Perhaps you should have seen it (much?) earlier.
    – Buffy
    Feb 18 '21 at 16:21
  • As you are a newcomer to research, I can't condemn you too much, but you have to keep up with the literature even after you start a project, all the way through to the end. Especially true in any "hot topic" area with a lot of parallel work.
    – Buffy
    Feb 18 '21 at 16:23
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    While I agree with the general sentiment, parallel work happens a lot. There are many separate communities, and many ideas pop up roughly at the same time when the time is mature. OP can not be by default blamed. Feb 18 '21 at 17:26
  • 1
    This seems excessively pessimistic. Feb 20 '21 at 5:45

When was the paper released? If it is very new (few months old), then maybe it won't be considered a big mistake. (because it is "just" a thesis) But the evaluation of the whole thing depends on how strict your supervisor is. So ask them.
Question: is there any minor difference in the hypothesis/experiment design between your thesis and the paper? then you could incorporate it more easily and could reflect on the differences in the outcome.

  • The paper was released in 2018. In reality, I explore the concept from a sufficiently unique perspective that I believe there won't be a problem, but I'm disappointed because I thought that I was the first to come up with the basic idea. Feb 18 '21 at 16:49
  • 4
    Don't be hard on yourself. It is not easy to come up with an entirely new idea. Even the best ideas are "duplicated" or found out by multiple people at the same time. Now just concentrate on writing a good thesis and defend it.
    – user133776
    Feb 18 '21 at 16:56

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