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I was sent a paper to review recently. I decided to review the paper and saw that part of the paper is on a very similar method that I have been working on recently. Not the wording, of course, but the main ideas.

One of the problems is that they did not mention that part in the abstract, so I didn't know about it when I accepted the review. An even worse problem is that their paper is poorly written, full of wrong theorems, terminology etc. so I have no choice but to recommend rejection.

I know reviews are anonymous. But I want to avoid two things:

  • Them reporting me for a plagiarizing or stealing their idea.
  • Them thinking that I have stolen their idea, even if they do not necessarily report me.

What should I do?

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    How do you know it is a case of idea stealing, rather than common inspiration in terms of recent publications and remaining problems in your area? – Patricia Shanahan May 26 '15 at 14:59
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    @PatriciaShanahan I think what the OP means is that he does not want that the authors of the reviewed papers think that HE plagiarized them if he rejects it now and later publishes something similar. – xLeitix May 26 '15 at 15:03
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    You may want to see what sort of documentation you could provide as to work you did prior to receiving the paper for review, for your own peace of mind if nothing else. – user2813274 May 26 '15 at 17:22
  • Do you have a good-enough draft right now? If so you could put your draft on SSRN or arXiv as evidence that your ideas were already mature at the current date. – I Like to Code May 26 '15 at 23:28
  • @ILiketoCode I do not have a draft right now, unfortunately – padawan May 27 '15 at 9:44
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I am going to answer based on an implicit assumption I feel much of your question hinges on:

One of the problems is, they did not mention that part in the abstract, therefore I have accepted.

This sounds like had you known that their work is so similar to yours, you would have rejected the review.

However, I would argue that that cannot possibly be in the interest of the review system.

Yes, you could argue for a conflict of interest, but it is the conflict of interest that exists generally, based on the simple fact that other people beside you do research in the same or similar topics as you. It is not a conflict of interest on a personal level (e.g. you being part of the team whose paper is being reviewed).

Instead, it is a conflict of interest that, in theory, should quite often exist in the review process - for reviews to be meaningful, reviewers need to be familiar with the topic to some extent, and thus, a similarity of the research topics between authors and reviewers is hardly avoidable.

I see your concerns about what the authors of the paper under review might be thinking, though you might have to brush them aside for the time being. However, what you can do is draw the benefit from being the reviewer and thus having early access to a manuscript:

  • While your method may be very similar, it is most probably not exactly the same. When describing your method, try and insert a few sentences that focus particularly on a few aspects that you do differently from them.
  • For future publications you might write on similar topics, keep in mind that there may be a similar publication by those authors around that you can cite.

This has advantages for both sides:

  • You increase the chances to include a relevant citation that you might otherwise miss (and thus the authors' chances of being cited by you are increased).
  • Even though you cannot yet cite the work of the other authors, your clear description of some different aspects serves as a way to "preemptively" establish the differences between your work and theirs.
  • If they happen to publish a revised version of their paper after your work has appeared, you have already provided them with quite a straightforward foundation for describing their differences to your work.

In the comments, the concern has been voiced that even without the assumption of plagiarism, the authors of the other paper might still feel by rejecting their work, you intentionally stalled their progress for long enough so you could publish your own very similar work first, and now it's their problem to care about the prior art.

However, there are some aspects of good scientific practice that speak against that line of reasoning:

  • You do not provide an unjustified judgement, you provide a review. If you choose to reject the paper, you have the opportunity to describe objectively and in detail why you deem the work in its current state not ready for publication.
  • The other authors have not yet published their work in a properly citeable fashion, but that still just means you have plausible deniability on your side when you are asked whether you knew about the other work. Scientific integrity still demands that you consider the existing prior work, published or not, which is exactly what you are doing by specifically describing some aspects that you do differently than the reviewed paper, as described above.
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    It is not explicit in the question, but it feels like a direct (I do not know if you would call it “on a personal level”) conflict of interest, or accusations thereof, might be a very real possibility. Setting aside accusations of plagiarism, the authors might still think the OP delayed their paper, or had it rejected, in order to claim priority. – xebtl May 26 '15 at 19:48
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    @xebtl: For clarification: By "on a personal level", I meant a conflict of interest based on a relationship between persons (e.g. by working in the same group) rathern an a conflict of interest based on a relationship between topics (e.g. by pursuing closely related research questions). – O. R. Mapper May 26 '15 at 23:26
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    This is the kind of situation where a universal use of a preprint server such as arXiv is useful: you can cite the reviewed paper in your own even if it is rejected, without making obvious that you where the referee. – Benoît Kloeckner May 27 '15 at 10:06
  • Your response to the concerns raised is naive. There are many ways for reviewers to pass on objective looking concerns with the pure intention of stalling, and it's not such an uncommon practice to the best of my knowledge. – Korem May 27 '15 at 11:20
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    @Korem: Possible, but if the concerns are objectively justified, it doesn't actually matter whether the actual intention of the reviewer was stalling, does it? In any case, I suggested that more as a way for the OP to assume a safe position. Sure, the other authors might complain about perceived stalling, but that is exactly why the review by the OP must be written in a way so its complaints against the paper remain justified even if the editors decide to do a thorough check of the review and its claims. – O. R. Mapper May 27 '15 at 11:26

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