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I have worked on a project for 8 months and am due to submit it in a month. Recently I found a paper (by a professor from a different university) which is very similar to mine and even goes a step ahead. I missed this paper completely and now I am afraid to talk my advisor, though I know I have to.

This was my first paper as I am just completing my MS and will start my PhD in fall. I was pretty excited about it. Now I just want to cry and die. How do I tackle this now?

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    Go ahead and cry—we all feel that way from time to time. (Don't die!) Then consult the excellent answers below :) Commented May 19 at 15:49
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    "now I am afraid to talk my advisor" Why? What do you imagine you did wrong? Commented May 20 at 2:23
  • Tangential (ie. those who have gone before), and flavoured with a dash of irony... :-) See also and perhaps this one, too "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."
    – Fe2O3
    Commented May 20 at 2:43
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    One course of action you should also take is to reach out to the author of the paper, and start building a relationship. Maybe send them the draft you had and start a discussion.
    – Tilo
    Commented May 20 at 17:53
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    @Tilo having contact is harmless (to some degree), but no, I disagree with sending the draft to anyone else.
    – Etemon
    Commented May 20 at 19:23

5 Answers 5

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Take a deep breath. This type of thing happens all the time to everyone in the business. I'd say more than half of the citations that go into my literature searches are things that I discover within the last stretch of writing a paper. Often it's only your long experience trying to write the thing that gives you the perspective to spot these connections.

If you just discovered this new paper, take a break from the whole thing for a day or two over the weekend.

Then come back with a fresh set of eyes to your current work and see if you can identify where it differs with this previous paper. In my experience, it almost always does in some important way. Your adviser will have some ideas on how to proceed.

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    One reason it "happens all the time to everyone in the business" is that often, one can't formulate search terms to check if anyone else has previously published insight X until one has independently developed insight X oneself. Commented May 19 at 12:27
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Being scooped this way is a common thing, and happens even for professionals log into their careers. That this is happening to you at this point in your career is to some extent a good thing; it means you are thinking along the same lines that some professionals are doing.

But what you should do: look over what they did carefully and see if any of your work is different. How different? It may be that differences in your approach make parts of yours still worthwhile. But you absolutely need to talk with your adviser about this. The sooner you do so, the sooner you can get more specific advice which will depend on exactly what is in your project and what is in this paper.

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    This is a great point, you should take confidence that you are producing work sophisticated enough to be scooped before you've started your PhD! It's not a nice feeling being scooped, but it is very common, and means in many ways you are on the right track.
    – Joseph
    Commented May 19 at 12:59
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Depending on the area of research, you could rewrite some parts of your paper and reframe your paper as a verification of findings from the last year's paper. Perhaps if there are substantial differences in methodology, you could make some additional arguments. This will both preserve your academic integrity and increase the quality and importance of your paper.

Also, I think it might also be beneficial to come into contact with the professor, who wrote a paper that is similar to yours. Perhaps you might find career and/or academic opportunities that way, or perhaps some insight that could help you in your situation

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    Really good point about reaching out to the other author. Having just published on it, they're quite possibly the single most knowledgeable person in the industry to talk with on that specific niche subject. They're also very likely to be asked to peer review the work anyway, given that specialization. Commented May 19 at 20:47
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With the amount of information out there, it can be easy for many topics to overlap somewhat. As long as you properly cite everything, you shouldn't worry too much.

In writing, the best way is to take a break from looking at your paper. After a while, go back and highlight the similarities and differences. Is it the writing style? Your ideas? What specifically sets yours apart? Remember your purpose/aim can be the same, but perhaps your methodology, discussion, results and conclusions are different.

If your paper is different enough, perhaps you can cite that paper you discovered just to be safe.

Of course, let your adviser know ASAP of this situation so you can work out something together. I wish you all the best!

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How do I tackle this now?

You should be very pleased. You have discovered a source more credible than yours, that arrived at similar conclusions to yours - thereby bolstering your conclusions.

You are not required to be omniscient, and it's virtually impossible in the internet era to say something that hasn't been said before and is available, if you dig around enough.

Just explain to your advisor that you overlooked that particular paper, but are encouraged that 'so and so' also said something similar to you.

If your advisor, is reasonable, they should give you additional credit for 1 - being honest; 2 - arriving at similar conclusions to the paper you came upon late in your work.

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