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I'm hoping to get advice on this issue. Here's a rough chronology:

A few years ago, I published a method on arXiv and presented it at a few conferences. I tried publishing the work in a journal, but it got stuck in the review process for over a year and eventually rejected. A couple years later, I published follow-up work in another journal. Shortly thereafter, a few well known authors published essentially the same method with some minor adjustments. They cited my journal article, but provided almost no context and listed it as one entry among other much less related work. Their previous work had cited my preprint, again without much context, so I suspect they were already familiar with my work and had not developed the method independently.

My advisor had suggested I move on, but this issue is driving me crazy. The other paper has received tons of citations and accelerating attention while my preprint and journal article are mostly ignored. The authors now have all this opportunity for collaboration and funding on the basis of the method, while I'm trying to get my foot in the door. How do I get credit?

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    I suggest you this challenge: why are these other authors well known? because they publish interesting things. Why are they are cited? because of the cumulation/inertia of previous works. It is not a one-shot thing: they provided interesting papersover the years. How this reflect on you? Simply: you can be one of them, your work is on par with their work (some disclaimers apply). You have the proof that your ideas can be interesting. You are an unknown author, you published a pre-print and the big guns noticed it and cited it (or they were suggested at review to cite your work)? be happy!
    – EarlGrey
    Nov 29, 2023 at 12:53
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    I just want to add that just because they cited your earlier preprint doesn't mean for sure that they are fully aware of the extent of similarity between yall's articles, and are willfully sidelining you. It's also possible, and even likely, that they simply skimmed your article and weren't fully able to grasp the extent of the connection, as they were trying to quickly fill out the related work without expending too much effort. This doesn't make it right, but there's a saying about not imputing malice where incompetence suffices which has brought me much comfort. Nov 29, 2023 at 14:30
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    I suspect they were already familiar with my work and had not developed the method independently. - At least in math, it's is quite common to figure something out, and only at the end discover that other people have already done (essentially) the same thing. This is not a reason to not give proper attribution---I'm just saying independent discoveries are very common.
    – Kimball
    Nov 29, 2023 at 15:50
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    @EarlGrey The most important factor is pedigree. They went to fancy schools, had important mentors, and now have prestigious professorships. That's how academia works. That they produced good work in the meantime is incidental. Lots of people could have if given the opportunity. No, I won't be happy. I don't care what the "big guns" think. I want the spoils for my work. Nov 29, 2023 at 16:04
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    @EarlGrey It's fine they used the method in another paper and that it got traction because they published it and are well known. What's not fine is that they took credit for inventing the method. They should have cited me appropriately, i.e. something like, "we use the method develop in [my paper]." Nov 29, 2023 at 19:39

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There are several good responses, but I'd like to give you another perspective.

Such a situation is very upsetting, indeed. And it happens surprisingly often.

It may be that:

  1. they have been independently working on this and were fired up by the appearance of your paper
  2. they side-read your paper, forgot about it, then developed the idea again, and then found your paper again, as a "related work".
  3. they intentionally subsumed your work and cited it (to avoid proper disputes, they cleanly cited it - as a form of plausible deniability)

We do not know which of these cases are true. You may have a hunch, but this is not a proof. There are places which have a preponderance to supersede existing work with their own - they do cite it, to be sure, but then inundate the market with their work to overwhelm the literature. Or, see point 2 above - this is something that - here, I borrow a term from Einstein - one could call "nostrification".

However, as described, they were at least careful to cite you - both your preprint and your main journal paper. It does not really sound like a proper case 2 or 3, or they would have tried to avoid citing you in the repeat publication and tried to refer to their old one. True, they did not exactly draw the attention to your work, and that's more than questionable. But, in my opinion, at this level it is not really actionable.

You were unlucky in that they got much more visibility; this does not only have to do with the better schools etc. It may have been the case with their better visibility throughout. Their prior work may have been so well known, that the readers preferred riding a new wave with them rather than with a unknown author (yes, you do not need to convince me that this is not how science should be done - hence, double-blind reviews; but once published, the name is there).

This is certainly not fair - but people are lazy; often, too lazy to try and find out where a piece of wisdom actually came from in the first place.

At the stage where you are, the question is: do you really want this dispute? Most of the time, priority disputes do not end well, often for both sides, sometimes from the side of the one raising it (who basically is a form of "whistleblower", even if on their own account). All people will remember will not be your paper, but your priority dispute.

That being said, there are exceptions; there are people who battle to be recognized, and end up being recognized. Still people will remember the battle and it may overshadow the scientific achievement.

At this stage, it becomes a meta-consideration.

If this result is so career-defining that you want to go all in and stake your whole reputation on it, then you could go for it.

Is this not the case, you can go for the indirect approach and just propagate your method intensely, present it and create awareness of it.

Finally, "if you can't beat them, join them". Maybe you could write to them in a friendly, or at least collegiate way. Sometimes, this is a way to make friends and find a collaboration with better known scientists.

And ultimately, if this research is behind you, however, and no longer a defining part of your career, you might be better served to altogether focus on the hot topics of your present and future activity and forget about it instead of wasting further time (and possibly reputation) on it. And this time round you will invest in promoting your upcoming strong results widely, so that that many people will know that these ideas come from you, before others pick them up and begin running with them.

All in all, and here I agree with the other responders, the case is far less clear-cut than many I have seen, and while you could pick a priority dispute, I think you should elevate yourself to the meta-level and decide on that meta-level what is the most important goal for you and balance it with the most likely positive outcome.

In the end, if you are a productive scientist, you can as well take the attitude "If they are happy with some crumbs of bread from my full-sized baguette, I can as well be generous." and many of the productive scientists I know have this attitude. And yes, that's even true if they are far more famous than you. After all, it shows that you are on the right track if they copy you.

TL;DR: In the end, it boils down to one thing: is this your only result of consequence and worth staking your career on it? Is it crucial to advance your career? Or is it one of many results and you expect to have a continuous series of results? Considered from this meta-perspective, this will inform your decision.

If, however, you take action purely as a matter of principle, this will dominate everything else in this matter, even your possibly important scientific result.

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    I left out some more recent context. They have written several additional papers since, all of which ignore my work, including one whose preprint cited my work, but whose published article does not. This is why I'm leaning towards your case 3. Thanks for the advice. I'm tempted to burn the whole thing down and switch fields over this, but I have some thinking to do. Nov 30, 2023 at 3:54
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    @user1561984 That is indeed upsetting, my condolences. That being said, sleep over it and decide with cool head. Remember, the world does not thank its heroes. So, if you do it, you do it only for yourself. Nobody but you, and your true friends, and a few upright souls who hear of this, will care. Nov 30, 2023 at 16:36
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    "Finally, 'if you can't beat them, join them'." This is good advice. The main result in my masters thesis appeared in another paper (using very different techniques) about a month before I defended. I ended up not publishing a paper out of that work, because it seemed too similar to the other author's work. However, I was able to collaborate with that author at a later date, which resulted in a pretty solid paper. It's generally better (for everyone) to be a team player. You might lose a priority dispute today, but you gain collaborators for the future. Nov 30, 2023 at 19:57
  • @user1561984: That's why I hate academia. It is common to find reviewers who reject papers that are achieving something earlier than them, so that they can publish first and claim the credit.
    – user21820
    Dec 2, 2023 at 5:21
  • @user21820 That depends on the field. I know that there are fields like that. In my field it is more along the line, I don't understand or this is not in fashion, therefore not interesting. A few years later, this is obvious. Annoying, but manageable, not all reviewers are like that. Dec 3, 2023 at 14:53
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It sounds like your work was cited and a work based on it has been more influential in part because the people involved are known.

That's kind of where it ends. I'd go with your advisor on this one. It's not entirely fair, but there's no court to win this battle in. You can present your role in places you communicate with people directly: in your own talks, in your resume and interviews, in submissions for funding (I disagree that the other authors have a monopoly on funding related to use of this method somehow).

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    Is there really nothing I can do? Even though they cited me, they took total credit for the method. That doesn't seem like an appropriate citation. I do understand that I can still use the method in proposals, but they have much more clout because the community believes them to be the original inventors and I will be competing against them. Nov 29, 2023 at 3:54
  • @user1561984 I gave some mention of things you can do.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 29, 2023 at 4:05
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Your arXiv submission establishes priority for whatever you put in the submission before they published it. There is nothing to dispute relating to priority. You already have it.

Getting citations and attention is a poor indicator of quality. There is nothing you can do about their citations and the attention they are getting.

Work to increase the visibility of your research. Stop worrying about other peoples' citations.

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    This sounds like "sit down and take it." I agree that citations shouldn't be important, but in the real world, they make and break careers. Pretending otherwise isn't going to change anything. Nov 30, 2023 at 4:01
  • @user1561984 Nobody is pretending citations aren't important. But getting further worked up over this won't help you -- on the contrary it will likely harm your career. And you should be aware that you are not blameless in this whole matter! It's likely that your competitors weren't aware of your work until late in their project. Had you seen to it that your work was published instead of only being on arxiv, the risk of that happening would have been lower. Hence this answers suggestion: Work on making your own research more visible, and stop obsession about their citations.
    – fgp
    Nov 30, 2023 at 11:48
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    "Had you seen to it that your work was published instead of only being on arxiv, the risk of that happening would have been lower." I do not believe any action the asker could have taken would have made a difference. Nov 30, 2023 at 14:23
  • @fgp It's standard practice in my field to post on arXiv to establish priority while giving talks and pointing people to the preprint. Might not be true for yours. Quite a few responses are pretending like citations aren't important. Even yours implies that protecting my career is more important than trying to rectify this. Maybe my and the other authors' careers aren't important. Nov 30, 2023 at 15:10
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    @fgp OP responded in one of the comments to me that there are indications that the authors in question deliberately worked to obfuscate the source without formally violating the hard criteria of plagiarism. If that's true, the case is not as innocent as it appears. I have seen such attempts with a number of colleagues before, so I do not consider this scenario far-fetched. I agree, however, that it is very much a judgement call whether to go nuclear over that. Nov 30, 2023 at 18:37
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You write:

They have written several additional papers since, all of which ignore my work, including one whose preprint cited my work, but whose published article does not.

If you insist on pursuing the matter further (I will not comment on whether this is a good idea or not), you can use that as your in.

You can contact them saying politely that you have noticed they do not cite your work and you feel that they should because blah blah. You can then use this as an opportunity / excuse to explain to them why you feel that the two methods are essentially the same and leave them to draw the appropriate conclusion without actually having to say it yourself.

Not being cited at all is a perfectly legitimate opportunity to contact other authors and it avoids the unpleasantness of having to explicitly say "yes, you did cite me, but I feel you are substantially downplaying my contribution here and overstating your own". Even if you believe that they did not act in good faith, communicate as if you believed that they did. If they did act in good faith, they deserve to be treated that way. If they didn't, this is a blunder that you can exploit to your advantage as it gives you a legitimate excuse (as long as you engage them in good faith rather than in an aggressive manner) to strongly imply that they should have given you more credit in the first place.

If you manage to do this without sounding entitled or aggrieved (even though you might justifiably feel that way), then there is some chance that this might work. That is, you either get what you want or you get better evidence that they are not acting in good faith (or, possibly, you can get an explanation of why their work is more novel than you give them credit for).

Edit: you may have your suspicions, but as far as I am concerned you are not entitled to say that they are acting in bad faith unless you have actually tried engaging with them reasonably and they refused to do so. Even if you are 99% certain, you owe them this, and it makes your case more credible.

Finally, you can take some solace in the fact that often these kinds of things do come to light eventually, i.e. people often do realize at some point that X.Y.'s result should really have been attributed to P.Q. instead.

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