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In 2006, when I was still in grad school, I wrote a paper that went through the usual motions: I discussed it with my advisor, I presented it at a peer-reviewed conference, and then published it as a refereed chapter in an edited volume. Right before the volume came out, I was explaining the paper to a friend from another university and he went: "oh, I think Professor Bigshot said something similar in his semi-obscure 1970 dissertation!". I checked the dissertation in question and, indeed, what I wrote is essentially what Professor Bigshot wrote in 1970, give or take some minor variations in the formalism.

Something to keep in mind here is that this is not plagiarism. I came up with the idea totally on my own, and I didn't reference Professor Bigshot's dissertation because nobody (not my supervisor, not the conference audience, not the chapter referees) told me about it in time. What worries me is that other people might think I took the relevant dissertation passage and plagiarized it. So far, nobody has happened, but I'm want to preempt plagiarism claims in the future. Obviously, nothing can be done about the published chapter, so I have modified the downloadable preprints in both my website and the go-to repository of my field, adding a note that explains the situation and giving proper credit to Professor Bigshot.

Is this enough, or is there anything else I can do?

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    I don't see what else you can do. I'm a little surprised that you're worried that someone will view this as plagiarism (especially after eight years). Independent rediscovery is a fact of life in any sufficiently rich academic field. From the fact that you didn't plagiarize, it follows that no one can prove that you did. Anyone who doesn't take you at your word when you've given no one a good reason to believe that you've behaved dishonorably is himself not behaving honorably. – Pete L. Clark Jun 23 '14 at 8:02
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    You have behaved ethically. You independently rediscovered something [obscurely] published earlier. Upon discovering the duplication of results, you have publicly noted that so-and-so worked in this area 40 years ago, with similar results. Your work was independent, so Professor Bigshot should take it as a confirmation of his work. It's certainly not plagiarism, and by drawing attention to the earlier work, you have pre-empted any such claims. Sleep peacefully. – Phil Perry Jun 23 '14 at 16:19
  • This happens all the time: just mention the other person's work now, as it deserves to be acknowledged. It should be different enough that people won't think it is plagiarism. If there are sentences/paragraphs with identical text, well...then you plagiarized. :) But that is not the case, right? – neuronet Jan 3 '16 at 4:40
  • @neuronet Strictly speaking even if OP somehow ended up writing the same text independently they did not actually plagiarise, although of course convincing somebody of this is a tough sell. – xLeitix Aug 5 at 8:41
11

It is hard, if not impossible, to pre-empt accusations of plagiarism. The key is to be prepared to defend yourself. People rediscover stuff all the time. I would make sure that you keep all of your notes, drafts and any literature searches you may have done. I think keeping them privately would be fine, but if you really wanted to, you could make them publicly available in an archival manner to demonstrate that it is really your work.

10

One of things to do is to start publicly acknowledge the previous work, mentioning that your own contribution has been merely a re-discovery of a lesser known result, or maybe a result from the other research field than yours. Such things happen from time to time, and are not necessarily considered as plagiarism, unless an author continue to act in a way that justifies such a characterisation.

0

You will not be able to pre-empt every possible accusation in academia. If you were not aware of this earlier work when you wrote the paper, then don't worry about it -- at all. It simply isn't plagiarism. I would cite this earlier work in future papers, if it is relevant. But, dissertations are really not the best sources to be citing (at least in the social sciences) -- and the best dissertations are spun off into articles.

Also, what is the purpose of "giving credit to Professor Bigshot?" If the article was based on that person's work, then you give credit by citing that work accordingly. However, if you didn't even see that work when you wrote the paper, then it isn't necessary. Your steps to highlight this issue on your website is commendable, but I don't think it is warranted. I suggest that you don't worry about this issue anymore.

  • 1
    The first paragraph is mostly on-target, except "dissertations are really not the best sources to be citing". There is a sense in which that is true -- it is not good to cite a dissertation in the sense of relying on it because dissertations may not be publicly available and may (sadly, but it's still true) not have been refereed to professional standards: one does wonder a bit about a result that appears in a dissertation and that has not been published. However, that's not the present sense of "cite": if the OP had read the dissertation, then of course he would have needed to cite it. – Pete L. Clark Jun 23 '14 at 13:21
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    However, the second paragraph is really wrong. If the paper had been published in a journal, then following up with an addendum / corrigendum / statement of priority would have been an appropriate thing to do given the OP's description of the situation. I find your question about the purpose of this weird: the purpose is to acknowledge someone else's priority on a certain result, so as to....give them credit. See for instance math.uga.edu/~pete/Baker-Schmidt81.pdf for an instance of this. It is quite common. – Pete L. Clark Jun 23 '14 at 13:26
  • @PeteL.Clark Turing's On Computable Numbers springs to mind as another example, having been pipped to the post by Church, Turing then not only acknowledged but demonstrated the equivalence of their methods. – OJFord Jun 23 '14 at 15:13
  • @Ollie: Sure, there are so many examples. I gave the one I did because I wanted to point to an actual paper and this one, having come up in a relatively recent literature search I did, was close at hand. The more important the work, the more important this sort of thing is. In my own field perhaps the most important instance of this is the following remarkable paper of Harold Stark: deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/33039. From these examples we can see that the greats are often willing to do some intellectual work in order to demonstrate the essential priority of others. – Pete L. Clark Jun 23 '14 at 15:27
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    There seems to be a difference in opinion about what citing is for. BrianP seems to take the view that you cite the sources that you use; @PeteLClark seems to take the view that you cite not only the sources you use, but also give credit to related work that predates your own - even if you didn't use it. I tend to side with the latter, since academia feels very strongly about 'who was first'. – Mark Peletier Jun 28 '14 at 6:13
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There is absolutely no doubt that your publication constitutes plagiarism, but - importantly - of the unintentional rather than the intentional kind. It is still plagiarism however. The only proper course of action is indeed the one you have already taken; if the professor is still active, it might be a good idea to let him know directly.

  • 1
    It's interesting to see your "no doubt" in light of the other answers and comments, that have stood unchallenged for over five years... Maybe it'd be useful if you could provide your definition of plagiarism. The ones I've seen tend to prominently include "use of another's work, words, or ideas", which, as far as I can tell, wouldn't apply here. – Anyon Aug 5 at 10:51
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    There is absolutely no doubt that you don't know what plagiarism means. – neuronet Aug 5 at 17:57

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