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When engaging in research, I know its a good idea to read lots of papers and talk to others about what has been done before and what is currently being researched to avoid "reinventing the wheel". That is, to avoid researching/publishing a result that has already been discovered.

In fields where physical experiments are common, replication studies are necessary. But in theoretical/computational research, originality is key and duplication seems to be generally frowned upon. How common is it to inadvertently publish a finding that was already discovered? What do you when you happen to find yourself in this situation? Should you just scrap your work if your methods are too similar to someone else's?

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    I find I'm being forced to reinvent the wheel. The papers I'm reading (document page analysis--image processing) have no means to replicate their work. I want to stand on the shoulders of giants, but the giants didn't release their source code. Commented Jan 22, 2013 at 1:54
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    After reading a lots of paper, I do not have the feeling that I am "standing on the shoulders of giants" any more. It feels more like standing on a pile of dwarfs (albeit very clever dwarfs!).
    – Dirk
    Commented Mar 16, 2013 at 19:58
  • @Dirk The giants are generally represented by careers rather than individual publications.
    – Abe
    Commented Mar 17, 2013 at 3:05
  • "What do you when you happen to find yourself in this situation?" be reassured that you were thinking along the right lines - it is an indication that you understand your subject well. Especially if it was already published by a very well respected researcher. This has happened to me several times. Commented Jun 5 at 11:46

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How common is it to inadvertently publish a finding that was already discovered?

Far more common than anyone realizes or wants to admit.

Stigler's Law of Eponymy states that No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. (Stigler's law was proposed in this precise form in 1980 by Stephen Stigler, who self-referentially attributed it to Richard Merton, but of course similar statements were made earlier by many others, including Stigler's own father.) I wouldn't go as far as claiming that every scientific discovery is misattributed, but there are hundreds of examples. Off the top of my head: Fibonacci numbers, Pascal's triangle, Gaussian elimination, Euler's formula (both of them!), Voronoi diagrams, Markov's inequality, Chebyshev’s inequality, Dijkstra's algorithm for shortest paths, Prim's algorithm for minimum spanning trees, the Cooley-Tukey FFT algorithm, the Gale-Shapley stable matching algorithm (for which Shapley recently won the Nobel Prize in economics), ...

What do you when you happen to find yourself in this situation?

Be brutally honest, both with yourself and with the scientific community.

If your work has already been published, post a reference to the prior art in your web page listing your publications. (You do have a web page listing your publications, don't you?) If possible, publish an addendum to your paper. Email anyone who has cited your paper already, giving them the earlier reference. When asked to review papers that cite your paper, include the earlier reference in your report. Become a walking advertisement for the earlier work.

If your work hasn't already been published, try to figure out which parts of your work have actually been done before. Some of your results will appear verbatim in the earlier work, so you can't take credit for them. Some of your results will be easy corollaries of the earlier work, so you still can't take credit for them. But perhaps some of your results will take the old work in a new nontrivial direction. Build on that.

Also, if your results were previously known in a different field, there may be some value in bringing those results to the attention of your research community.

Should you just scrap your work if your methods are too similar to someone else's?

Of course not! Now you have evidence that your methods actually work! Push them further!

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    Thanks JeffE. This answer is one of the major reasons I joined this board. I have been bothered by this issue for long time. Now I know what to do. I don't know how to show my appreciation beside upvoting.
    – Nobody
    Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 4:03
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Besides the excellent JeffE's answer, I would like to add one more point to the phenomena of reinventing a wheel. It touches more "research towards an already invented wheel", rather than "publishing a reinvented wheel".

You have a problem and need to crack it. Your problem is practical and novel, you know that. But in order to solve it you need to invent some machinery and you just do not know whether it already exists, or not - simply because you do not have a good feeling for all the subtle aspects and issues of your problem. In such a situation, it is often easier to steam ahead, learn as you go, invent something for your problem and then, when you already are familiar with all the quirks and dark corners of your problem, look around carefully to find out how's the thing you invented actually called. The odds are, it already exists in some form, most probably invented in a different niche for different purposes, but it happens to be very similar to your problem.

Of course the above does not work for everybody, because it can be a frustrating experience to find that somebody else already invented what you did too (usually already long ago and in a better quality than you). My angle on this is to be always proud of myself, because those early solutions tend to come from very smart people, so if I managed to independently come up with the same thing as they did, it's a reason to feel better.

At that moment, however, one should realize, his/her approach and angle to the whole issue is slightly different than that of the guys who invented it earlier. You simply came to the same junction from a different direction and you are heading elsewhere. At that point it's just great to proceed in your direction, because you can be almost sure, that your direction is original and unexplored territory - otherwise the earlier work would be cited and that's easy to find out.

The process I describe above also partially explains why inventions tend to be named after guys who arrived to the junction later. They simply had a perspective which took them farther in terms of social impact than was that of those who originally solved the problem. Often solutions get named after the guys who popularize them and make their applications bloom, not those who solved them originally.

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    Also, sometimes intentionally reinventing the wheel is worthwhile. Several of my recent papers grew directly out of getting frustrated trying to understand someone else's proof, giving up and proving the same result myself (which was easier because I already "knew" the result was true), and then going back to see if I'd reinvented the wheel. Most of the time I had.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jan 21, 2013 at 20:37
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    Knowing a problem and having an idea how to solve it does imply knowing good search terms. This is particularly true in fields using weird acronyms or the name of the (re)inventor. I solved the problem described in this paper because I didn't find existing work. My solution then allowed me to find related work in another field. That enabled me to develop a more general framework and to highlight particular properties that had not been discussed previously. Quite a typical development, I think.
    – cbeleites
    Commented Apr 26, 2013 at 13:28
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Reinventing the wheel may be beneficial if you explain something better than the previous studies, release your code/software, etc.

In computers science it can be frustrating when people publish a summary of their methods, provide results, but no code so that others can apply this to other data sets. So you end up reinventing the wheel.

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    Often the methods are published and well described, but don't include the code - there is a big difference between reinventing the wheel and reimplementing it. In any case, the core of most innovative methods amount to a page or two of pseudocode; all the remaining volume is just engineering, data format conversion, etc and often you'd want to customize that part anyway.
    – Peteris
    Commented Mar 29, 2014 at 12:04
  • ... and hiding the micro-optimizations that aren't so micro but in fact critical for the algorithm to attain the performance and results described. These, you'd certainly want to know by having the source code.
    – gaborous
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 19:42
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This is not reinventing the wheel, but is related to the lack of certain researchers’ willingness to be forthcoming enough to help younger researchers avoid reinventing the wheel.

I worked with computer science graduate students and their advisers after I started as an assistant professor in a mathematics department, and I was flabbergasted when we were reading a paper that I said had a flaw but the student said we couldn’t question it because the authors are famous. Then I convinced the student to write to the authors asking for the proof details for the unproved claim that was at issue. She told me that their response was that they won’t send the proof because it’s proprietary.

I lost much of my hope for humanity that day.

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  • Surprising amount of optimism to have held out for so long! Wan' a beer? (Sorry...)
    – Fe2O3
    Commented Jun 5 at 7:31
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It happened to me once (in 40 years of doing research). I proved a very cute theorem in complex analysis by using tools from a (seemingly) totally unrelated area of math. (This connection between two unrelated research areas was the most interesting part of the paper.) I asked everybody I knew who might have known if the result was proven earlier - everybody told me that this is a new theorem. I posted the preprint but did not send it to a journal since I wanted to do a deeper literature search. It took me two years, but eventually I found that the result was indeed published (in German) in 1920 by some obscure German mathematician who proved it by a totally different method. I told everybody involved about the situation and moved on. Afterwards, people started to rediscover this theorem with different proofs. They also started to ask me to publish my proof since they found it useful for other purposes and eventually I did, of course, giving full credit to that German mathematician. The moral of this story, if there is any, is that sometimes reinventing the wheel can be useful.

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    Yes, some wheels are better than others, and/or are better in various use-scenarios. :) Commented Jun 4 at 19:12
  • I am curious about this "very cute theorem in complex analysis"! Any way we can get more details? :) Commented Jun 5 at 3:45
  • @MalikYounsi: Sorry, no, I like to maintain my anonymity. Commented Jun 5 at 3:48
  • @MoisheKohan no problem! Commented Jun 6 at 4:46
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I would assume, as you mentioned you are in theoretical/computational research, that there is some specific scenario you are referring to which may not be relevant to my field (Biomedical science) or others.

How common is it to inadvertently publish a finding that was already discovered? Very common in most fields, with the large number of journals and the "publish or perish" machine continuing to churn out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts more and more of the same is being published, and it won't be stopping anytime soon. So the chances that researchers produce the same or similar work/results is highly likely. The paper mills copying others' work to produce completely fabricated work is also highly likely.

What do you when you happen to find yourself in this situation? Should you just scrap your work if your methods are too similar to someone else's? NEVER EVER scrap your work! If you can't get it published in a high impact journal, publish in a reputable low impact journal, if you can't publish there put it up on arXiv or similar to get your work attributed to you ASAP.

If you have inadvertently, not intentionally rediscovered something that you missed in the current literature, amend your paper, better yet write another paper about how you think these parallel discoveries could have come about and compare and contrast, then reference both papers.

If you somehow were lucky enough to replicate or reproduce someone else's research or results independently, this is a great thing, possibly it means you are doing robust research, you should be proud.

I would also add that many many researchers do this deliberately for a living, they advertently copy others research, publish it as their own "original research" and then use it to build a career on. If you are looking for sustainability as an academic i.e. winning lots of grants it is a viable option as it can also be done transparently in biomedical research as many researchers can have similar research and the "original idea" is a bit ambiguous. Anyone copying others research to win grants can just say they are replicating others work if caught, or say "to our knowledge we are the first to discover this...", the old "get out of plagiarism free cards" !

Welcome to research and academia!

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