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I find myself in an awkward situation. Nearly two years ago I submitted a paper to a reputable mathematics journal. After 15 months it was rejected with the rationale that there had been papers published (most since the submission date) that contained results that I should have referenced. I found that a little spurious, but moved on and put my work together with some colleagues and got our new paper accepted (pending some language issues) by a different journal.

However, one of my co-authors has found that my exact result (barring some small notational changes, but with the exact same language; I can recognise it as mine, I slaved over finding just the right words!) from my original paper has had the proof published in a book by one author of the references that caused the paper to get originally rejected!

My assumption is thus that the paper was sent to this person to referee and they liked the result so much that they kept it for themselves, which also explains the delay in refereeing... I believe that this author has also presented this result at a conference as their own work. They have a number of papers published on the topic in question from their doctoral thesis.

My question is what steps can I take now to re-assert my authorship?

I believe that it would have been simpler if I had also submitted it to the arXiv, but I wasn't sure (at that time) how that would be seen by the journal. I did give a presentation of my results at a local conference, so I would be able to produce credible witnesses to back up my claim, if necessary. The book published containing my work is largely the doctoral thesis of the author, so I am attempting to find a copy of the thesis since it was deposited before I submitted my paper to the journal. Can anyone suggest any other recourse?

My co-authors would prefer to err on the side of caution and include a reference to the result in our revised paper, but I would really like to reclaim my work...

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    The American Mathematical Society has a Committee on Professional Ethics that can assist with cases like this. I imagine the Canadian Mathematical Society does too, but I don't know. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 7 '12 at 13:41
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    Any updates on this? – Matsemann Jan 13 '13 at 11:54
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    I would not waste a microsecond in blowing the whistle on this. In the future, when you produce an important paper, send a copy to yourself by mail for the effect of having it postmarked. Do not open it. At a later date, you can prove that the text existed in your possession long before the publication date of the plagiarized text, and that in fact is the oldest copy which carries some kind of authenticated date: evidence that you are in fact the author. There are other ways like having the paper certified by a notary public. – Kaz May 29 '13 at 6:07
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    @Kaz The postmarked envelope establishes nothing. How would you prove that you didn't mail yourself an empty, unsealed envelope to get the postmark on it, and then insert a document and seal it at a later date? – David Richerby Mar 10 '14 at 23:38
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    @Kaz: Somehow your advice, which is very appropriate for 1972, has gotten transported in time to 2014. Nowadays: just put your paper on the arxiv (or some other preprint server with a timestamp). Problem solved. This has some collateral effects, which are also beneficial to you. – Pete L. Clark May 3 '14 at 17:41
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I suggest that you write a formal letter to the journal editor who handled your submission. (Make sure it is the same editor.) Give all the relevant details, including dated copies of all correspondence (whether electronic or printed).

The editor should know who refereed your paper, and although the editor will not reveal their names to you (I assume that blind refereeing was done), he or she would be in the best position to act on the matter.

Perhaps the best thing that could happen is the editor agrees that some unethical behavior occurred, the editor helps you file a case against the erring referee, the erring referee gets penalized, and proper attribution is given to you.

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen is the editor does not believe your story, thinks you are just looking for trouble, and tells other editors and referees that you are a "bad, crazy person." Or the editor does believe your story but is a close friend of the erring referee and so acts as if he or she does not believe your story.

Either way, at least they know that you are aware of this unethical behavior and this will perhaps discourage the erring referee to continue with the unethical behavior in the future.

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    Thank you, I just sent off an email, will let you know the outcome! If anyone has any other suggestions, I'd be glad to hear them, but hopefully this will work. I'll accept this answer formally this time tomorrow as per the FAQ... – jp26 Sep 7 '12 at 18:28
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    I just heard from the editor after less than a week; the answer was supportive of me and I will be kept informed of the outcome of their actions, so far as the anonymous process allows. – jp26 Sep 12 '12 at 10:27
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    I'm curious: did you get your work back? – 727 Feb 23 '16 at 0:35
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    I am also curious here at the end of 2017, could you give us a general update @jp26? – Cloud Chem Dec 20 '17 at 6:29
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    I have had no similar problems, but have made a point of explicitly asking any journals that I submit my research to to not use this individual as a referee, and no journals have minded doing that. – jp26 Dec 20 '17 at 12:34
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There are some useful resources at http://www.siam.org/journals/plagiarism.php (especially if you submitted the paper to a SIAM journal, but some of them are more broadly useful).

My co-authors would prefer to err on the side of caution and include a reference to the result in our revised paper, but I would really like to reclaim my work...

I strongly agree with you on this. You have a right not to share credit with a plagiarist, and you also don't want to seem to be treating it as independent work.

I am attempting to find a copy of the thesis since it was deposited before I submitted my paper to the journal.

That sounds valuable to me.

Joel's suggestion of contacting the editor seems like the best way to start, especially since the editor may have critical information (if the plagiarist was indeed the referee, then the editor would have proof), but there are also several other ways you could follow up:

  1. You can ask a professional society you are a member of to investigate. For example, the American Mathematical Society has a Committee on Professional Ethics.

  2. You can complain to the publisher of the book. A respectable academic publisher should seriously investigate the complaint, but unfortunately some publishers are not respectable.

  3. If you discover any evidence of plagiarism in the dissertation as submitted to the university, you can bring it to the attention of the university. Even if the dissertation was submitted prior to your paper, it could be worth doing some web searches to look for other plagiarism in it. If you can document previous plagiarism, it will establish a pattern that may help make your case even more convincing. I'd be surprised if this is the first or only time this person has plagiarized.

  4. If the plagiarist is employed at a university or research lab, you can complain to their employer (since plagiarism is a form of professional misconduct).

Unfortunately, you may never reach a really satisfactory conclusion (see http://www.siam.org/journals/plagiary/index.php for a case study). For example, it may end up with the plagiarist using flimsy excuses ("I copied the text by accident when I mistook my notes on your paper for my own research", "my undergraduate research assistant copied it without my knowledge", etc.) and basically getting away with no serious consequences. However, if all goes well you should end up with an authority figure, such as an editorial board or ethics committee, agreeing that your results were stolen.

When you reach that point, I'd recommend publicizing the case, for example on your web page. Of course whether to do this is a personal choice, but I think it is a valuable service to the community to let us know about a plagiarist to watch out for (and it may deter or uncover other instances of plagiarism). You could even publicize it now, although of course if you do so you should make sure to present a compelling case and avoid speculation.

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    The flimsy excuses you describe are too flimsy: if you happen to believe them, you may feel that the person in question plagiarized without malicious intent, but anyone who says that is certainly admitting to plagiarism and should face all of the consequences of that. – Pete L. Clark Sep 9 '12 at 15:33
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    Exactly, there is no value to these excuses, but they are distressingly common. What seems to happen is that some universities are unwilling to admit that they are letting anyone get away with deliberate plagiarism, but they are also unwilling to actually punish anyone (maybe they don't think the behavior is so terrible, maybe they would rather cover it up, maybe they know it is a systemic problem they don't want to face, maybe it is bureacratically difficult to do anything), so they push for a flimsy excuse and then pronounce themselves satisfied. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 9 '12 at 17:39
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    Sunlight is the best disinfectant. So long as it gets swept under the rug, nothing will happen. If you publicize the issue, then often the university will have to respond. Besides, this isn't a simple case of a few sentences or a paragraph being lifted—this sounds like a whole paper (thesis chapter) was lifted wholesale. That's a much bigger issue, and one no self-respecting university administration can ignore. – aeismail Oct 7 '12 at 15:16
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This is just a layman's perspective, but here's what you can do:

1) Keep copies of all official correspondence. 2) If you have not touched the file at all, take a screenshot of the file explorer displaying the file name and the "last modified" date. 3) Get a signed statement attesting to your character and to the fact that you spent long hours putting your essay together.

The key is to gather enough evidence to conclude that the editor probably plagiarized. If you were to sue the author, all you'd to do is prove that there is a > 50% chance that the guy plagiarized your work.

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    A screenshot of the "last modified" date has no value. (You can alter the timestamp in the file system, it's easy to edit a screenshot, and in any case the file name proves nothing about the contents.) Signed character references could theoretically be useful, but I've never seen them play a role in any plagiarism case, so I don't think they are worth spending time on. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 20 '15 at 3:34

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