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What should a student do if they find a similar unpublished working paper (say at a recent conference) after they have already defended the thesis and graduated? Suppose that the other group has been working on the paper for quite some time and presented it on different occasions, but the student only found out after graduation. Would it be a huge problem?

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    A problem to whom? What is exactly your concern?
    – The Doctor
    Dec 27, 2023 at 10:36
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    A problem to the novelty of my thesis...? I am worried that since they have presented their work elsewhere, theoretically speaking they are the first who came up with the idea, and my thesis could be regarded as a 'copy cat'. Dec 27, 2023 at 10:51
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    If you already graduated and they merely presented but haven’t published yet, aren’t you the first to have published? Dec 28, 2023 at 7:53
  • Yes I am the first to have published. However I am not sure if presentation at conferences would count as informal publications? In fact I am more concerned about my reputation rather than actual publication in this case. Dec 28, 2023 at 8:08
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    Be nice and send them a copy of your thesis Dec 28, 2023 at 11:42

3 Answers 3

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There is nothing you should do. You demonstrated that you can do independent research by coming up with creative work and defending it to a committee. The fact that others were doing the same at the same time does not invalidate your achievements: It may be that you will find it hard to publish the results in your PhD thesis given that there is now another publication, but the point of a PhD thesis is generally to demonstrate the ability to do independent research, and the latter is not affected by others having done the same.

If you are concerned about who was first: Unless you (i) came up with a theory at the level of General Relativity, or (ii) discovered something that can be patented and is likely to bring in millions of dollars in revenue, nobody actually cares about these sorts of things. To historians, it will be clear that you and the other group have been working on these things at the same time, and lawyers will not care unless there is a substantial commercial impact of your work.

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    Or (iii) you become a politician and some people are looking for all possible ways to discredit you.
    – wimi
    Dec 28, 2023 at 13:54
  • @wimi No, there is no suggestion that OP copied or plagiarized. The work was just done concurrently. Dec 28, 2023 at 15:48
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Now, it would not be a huge problem.

It is common for research teams to work on the same problem without knowing of each others' work and sometimes come to very similar solutions and conclusions. If the thesis was accepted and published before the conference presentation, then you have the priority. If you unknowingly re-discovered some else's result, then usually nothing happens, so sometimes an academic committee investigates whether there was plagiarism. In your case, this is impossible since you could not possibly know about an unpublished result by someone else.

The polite way to handle this is to send a copy of your thesis to the other team and say that you were thinking alike. If the other team agrees that you published this first, then they might want to cite your thesis.

If you are not planning to work in academia, then the whole matter is of little import since the vast majority of employers does not care about your publications and priorities, unless this is a research institute. If your current employer wants you to get a patent on your discovery, then things become complicated.

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Cite their work in future papers you send out for publication, if appropriate, just as you would with any other relevant work you're aware of at the time you send out the manuscript (incl. any revised manuscripts).

As others have suggested, consider sending them a copy of your thesis, which they could cite in their own future publications. This would be especially helpful to the advancement of the science if you've made advances on parts of the problem they might have been getting stuck on, or if your independent works constitute independent validations of the same observed principles.

Don't worry about the past publications when you weren't aware of the other group's work. It's not reasonable to expect every researcher to be aware of every unpublished working paper even if directly on topic and even if previously presented.

Independent simultaneous invention/discovery is common, because multiple groups have access to the same memetic/conceptual building blocks and tools at approximately the same time. See some of Steven Johnson's work, like Where Good Ideas Come From (trailer here), for more on this.

Even if it were previously published work that many people in your field were familiar with, the most serious likely impact would be earning an (in that case appropriate) reputation for not doing sufficiently thorough literature review and/or not being sufficiently well connected as part of the research community on this topic. Such a reputation might make funders a bit more hesitant to give you grant money (if they think it's more likely to go to reinventing the wheel than granting the same resources to someone else) but it's neither reasonably expected nor efficient to have you and every other researcher aware of every unpublished working paper with ideas being discussed among colleagues for possible improvement.

See also linked "related" questions on the right.

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