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I did some research with some collaborators, and we have been writing an article ("paper A") describing the work.

A few days ago I received a request to review an article ("paper B") that covers most of our work. The authors of paper B have clearly worked independently on the same topic and beaten us to submission. (And fair play to them.)

This leads me to a number of related dilemmas:

The first, and I think easiest to resolve, is whether I have a conflict of interest in reviewing paper B. I think I can write a fair review, but I intend to tell the editor and allow them to decide whether I should proceed.

The other dilemmas arise mainly because I am bound by peer-review confidentiality. I should note that paper B is not available as a preprint.

Can tell my co-authors about paper B? I am convinced that confidentiality forbids me from showing paper B to them, but can I tell them that it exists and what it covers? My feeling is that the answer is 'no'.

But then, if I cannot tell my co-authors about paper B, then it seems I have to allow our paper A to proceed to submission even although I know of the overlap with paper B.

I am extremely uncomfortable with this, although one can take the view that since our work was independent, our paper A could still be published.

Furthermore, my first impression is that paper B is not suitable for the general journal to which it was submitted, but that I would recommend acceptance to a high-quality specialist journal, such as the one to which we intended to submit our paper A. This raises an unpleasant prospect: if our paper A proceeds to submission and publication, the authors of paper B might believe that I had rejected their paper and plagarized their work (a situation discussed in this question). This situation could arise even if I turn down the review request. Naturally, I want to avoid this.

How should I proceed? Could I ask the editor for permission to inform my co-authors about paper B?

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    I know of similar situations (in biology) that resulted in papers A and B published back-to-back in the same issue of the same journal. In one case it involved the main author of paper A to literally lock himself up in an hotel room and write up their paper asap. You might want to consider something like that. Of course you should refuse to review paper B due to the conflict of interest; the more important and urgent question is how to proceed with publishing your paper A. – amoeba Nov 28 '16 at 21:07
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    There should be an answer below dealing with the best way for OP to improve his own paper before submitting. In my field, most papers are first submitted to arxiv before being submitted to journals, so you can see if somebody duplicated your work and you can contact them and even get them to collaborate on your own paper. But, in this case, this looks both tricky and unethical. – user21264 Nov 29 '16 at 16:22
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    The unethical to do would be to accept to review the paper, write up your paper and submit it and then reject the paper on the grounds that it duplicates an existing paper (yours). Apart from being unethical you would certainly make enemies and this course of action (hopefully) would have a negative impact on your reputation/career. Unfortunately, this situation is not unheard of... Of course I wouldn't recommend this, so I'm not posting it as an answer ;) – Earthliŋ Nov 29 '16 at 16:23
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    I'll start by calling this a rather sticky situation indeed! – dalearn Dec 3 '16 at 20:04
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    Also, don't forget to tell us what happened in the end and how would you proceed if you had a second choice-timeline. – Mikey Mike Dec 4 '16 at 20:43
159

Your question raises several quite serious ethical questions - thank you for posting it!

From the last part of your question it looks to me that you actually do have a conflict of interest, since you are afraid that what you write in your review may impact your future relations with this research group. I think it is best for you to withdraw from reviewing this manuscript, and fully explain your decision to the editors. I would even consider sending them a draft of your manuscript, if this does not violate your arrangements with other authors.

I am not sure your own paper can not be published. In my area it is not uncommon for two groups to produce similar results almost simultaneously (the second paper is submitted before the first is printed). This does bring some hard discussions sometimes, especially if the ideas are published on arXiv or presented at conferences. However, this does not stop papers from being published. Of course, you should not use anything from paper B to improve your paper A.

To summarise: In my opinion, it's best for you not to study paper B in too much details, withdraw from reviewing it, explain this decision to Editors, and continue working on your paper A.

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    I have seen circular reference chains before in academic research. (In fact I got there following a reference chain while researching my thesis.) Perhaps not taking this advice is the source. – Joshua Nov 28 '16 at 16:54
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    I don't feel you addressed the issue of revealing the existence of B to group A. I feel it would be hard to continue "playing along" and potentially hold back ideas you might have had anyway as you've already seen them expressed in paper B. – Basic Nov 28 '16 at 20:20
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    @Basic The advice to avoid actually reading the paper in much detail is meant to prevent most of the "you've already seem them expressed in paper B" scenario. But this just happens to be one of the realities of the review process. Occasionally you are beaten to the punch, or you are inspired by the work to churn something else out, etc., and now you must wrangle in your desires to advance research in order to maintain your ethical standing. It may not be easy to hold back on the existence of B, but without expressed approval from B's editors (and possibly authors), he must. Somehow. – zibadawa timmy Nov 28 '16 at 20:47
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    +100 for sending a copy of your own paper to the editor. No reason not to, and has great potential to cover your rear in the future. Maybe upload a hash of it up somewhere too (or use the Bitcoin blockchain), if you don't want to reveal the contents now but want to prove you had it later. – Mehrdad Dec 3 '16 at 23:56
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    Can't edit since it's one character, but sure you own paper -> sure your own paper. – Qix Dec 5 '16 at 2:03
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I will address the part of your question concerning whether it is okay to tell your collaborators about paper B, which was not discussed in Dmitry Savostyanov's otherwise excellent answer (with whose content I agree 100%).

Let me start with a general remark: from an ethical point of view, when one agrees to keep some information confidential before seeing that information, it seems to me that such agreement is inherently limited in its scope rather than absolute. As a (rather extreme) example, say a friend is offering to tell you a secret but asks you to promise to keep it in confidence. You agree, and he then tells you that he murdered 10 people in cold blood. Obviously the usual assumption that it is your ethical duty to keep your promise is no longer valid at that point (except perhaps if you are his lawyer or priest, and even then maybe not).

The point of the above extreme example is that the context of the confidentiality promise, of the information you have promised (based on only partial knowledge of the nature of that information) to keep secret and of how that information interacts with your own work and other ethical duties to other parties, matters. In the current situation, I would argue that the situation is unusual enough that it is not covered by the usual default rules about the confidentiality promise being a very strong and essentially inviolable one. You are in possession of information that is highly significant to your coauthors, to whom you have some ethical responsibilities, but also a duty to respect the confidentiality of the author of paper B to the extent possible. How to resolve that tension?

My answer would be that it is okay to tell your coauthors about paper B. Don't go into any details, and in fact as Dmitry suggested, don't even study paper B in detail yourself to avoid implicating yourself in a very clear conflict of interest and possible conflict with your own conscience. But it is not unreasonable to caution your coauthors about the situation and discuss with them how your joint project should proceed in a way that does not needlessly cause a large waste of your combined efforts. At least, if you proceed in such a way then I think a reasonable person would not judge you harshly for what is in my view a small (and make sure to keep it as absolutely small as possible) violation of the confidentiality principle that is done in order to serve a greater good and satisfy your ethical obligations to other parties affected by the information.

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    It's not often you see people use serial killing as an analogy here... – zibadawa timmy Dec 2 '16 at 23:01
  • @zibadawatimmy It's not an analogy (keeping the secret is like not telling on a serial killer), it's a way to prove that you should not keep secrets under all circumstances, even if you agreed to do so. – sgf May 12 at 20:39
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A very good question indeed: a lot of us can face a similar dilemma.

I believe peer review is almost always about conflict of interest. [EDIT] As discussed in comments below, this assertion seems exaggerated. However, pure open research might be rare. There are many fields where universal principles cannot be found, and discussed only at the level of truth. Incremental improvements are common. Grant funded research is competitive, and its evaluation leads to biases. To summarize it in a saying that exists in different forms:

to steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research

Who is the original author? Wilson Mizner? Steven Wright? Joseph Cummings Chase? Asa George Baker? Is this quote a cut-and-paste from many? Sources are discussed in Quote investigator: If You Steal From One Author, It’s Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It’s Research

Because to be asked for a review of a paper, you need to share a similar interest (unless the system is flawed: how many have been asked for reviews outside their area of expertise?). And in the academic world, working on a similar topic cannot often be done without biases. And some apparently act unethically. I learned about Paper A submitted in a conference in Country C, rejected, and a year later same conference (ICIP 2003, Barcelona) at the, people for country C (in fact, one was in the technical committee of the conference) presented a quite similar Paper B, just aside to the guy presenting the resubmitted and now accepted Paper A. No proof.

In 1991, two groups, independently, published a paper on a very similar topic (chirplets). Paper A was published first, but Paper B was submitted first. Endless discussions followed.

If you withdraw your expertise, a clean and honest move, Paper B will follow its path to the reviewing system, independently of you. And quite fairly. Then, you can invite your coauthors to hurry, because you have heard that "a similar paper" was submitted. Or say them you have been asked to review it, and refused. And submit it to another journal. Hoping yours will make its way faster that the other, because better written, because of a fast editor, of a lucky hand of gentle reviewers. Perhaps, you can bet on a different field of application.

And as suggested by @Ian in a comment, why not openarchive (arxiv) your preprint, to set a date?

Whatever your choice, it would be difficult to act now as if you never received this paper to review.

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    Maybe also put up a pre-print...... – Ian Nov 29 '16 at 11:25
  • @Ian Excellent suggestion – Laurent Duval Nov 29 '16 at 12:18
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    I'm not sure that peer-review is almost always about conflict of interest. If I work on organism A and you work on organism B, doing similar things, there is no conflict (unless your findings show universal principles that my data also show). But still, I'm qualified to review your work. Apart from that, I agree with your suggestion. I've also heard stories of reviewers holding reviews until their team do the same experiments, and I find it unethical. – BioGeo Dec 1 '16 at 9:18
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    @George I agree. What I meant is that research is competitive, and its evaluation leads to biases. There many fields where universal principles cannot be found. I always keep in mind the quote "to steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research". – Laurent Duval Dec 1 '16 at 9:27
  • @LaurentDuval Yes, that is true. And in many cases we can be in survival mode. Hehe. That's true. Whose quote is this? – BioGeo Dec 1 '16 at 12:14
12

From the standpoint of advancement of scientific knowledge, it seems to me that you are likely better qualified to give actual intellectual commentary on the content of this paper than anybody else, save your co-authors.

If peer review only includes reading a scientific paper, then checks for accuracy are far more limited than the possibilities for someone who has actually duplicated the reported results in their own independent research and testing.

By definition, scientific results should be susceptible to reproduction. Who better to comment on the accuracy of conclusions made in a field than someone who has actually performed similar experiments? And who better to call a "peer" than someone interested and involved in exactly the same line of research, but independently?


Undoubtedly I am betraying a "misunderstanding" of the peer review process. I expect such interchange as I describe above is expected to take place after publication.

However, the peer review system as currently established has not, in my observation, had an excellent track record for scientific advancement. And at least one intellectual giant (who has worked through the system to the status of fully tenured Professor) agrees with me.

Thus my answer is written with no interest in mind beyond what is optimal for the advancement of human knowledge.

Very likely the easier action for you to take would be to operate in accordance with the current peer review process framework, as ably conveyed in Dmitry's answer. However, I feel it is important to bring up this side note, at least so you can consider it during the actions you take.

The purpose of peer review should be to aid and advance the state of scientific knowledge across the world.


Mark Burgess's blog post, Why I stopped caring about peer review, and learned to love the work, is so pertinent I have to restrain myself from quoting it in its entirety. And I don't want to quote his potentially controversial comments out of context of the conceptual structure he built. But here is one excerpt from near the end of the article:

Science rarely waits for publications to appear anymore. The process is so painfully slow that when a publication appears, either everyone has already read it, or no one is going to. So much nonsense gets into print that it is scarcely a real accolade to be in print.

It takes months or years for a paper to reach print, and who can afford academic journals anyway? So, why would we not think: what if I just self-published my idea in a blog or a website? I could simply ask a smaller circle of people to comment honestly. And it would be searchable by anyone who might stumble across it with the help of modern search engines. Use the archives and the new social sharing sites. Technology can take prejudice out of the equation.

It is up to each of us to exercise best-effort, to listen and improve -- to not waste others' time. So why not wait until we have real ideas, questions, conjectures that inspire others, then write them carefully and put them out there to stimulate a research community, instead of trying to shut down others as competitors (or less important institutions). That is what is now possible, without an old guard to get in the way.

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    Surely, it is easier to stop caring about peer review when one has a permanent tenure ) – Dmitry Savostyanov Nov 28 '16 at 22:01
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    @DmitrySavostyanov, I hope you read the article in full? "I feel as though my own small success is in spite of rather than because of peer review, and the real world relevance of my work was recognized by the world at large even before it was grudgingly recognized by academia." Also, he left his university position roughly a decade before he wrote that article. – Wildcard Nov 28 '16 at 22:04
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I personally think you should consider this: you are not the first to submit this work to a journal. Which is unfortunate, but verifiably true. So admit defeat, review the paper as best you can, and work on revising and extending your own results so that you can still publish something later.

By the way, this assumes that the work is in fact an exact duplicate. Given that you have done some work along the same lines, at first glance it may seem to be more similar than it actually is (this has happened to me more than once). So a very careful reading is in order.

As a side note, from what I have seen, the confidentiality strictures are frequently treated more as guidelines than real, when it comes to sharing with one's co-authors. Along these lines, I don't think there is anything preventing you from contacting the other group - maybe one resolution could be joint publication, depending on your field of work.

Finally a story about something that actually happened to a colleague of mine: He submitted a paper which was given to a reviewer working on a similar project, but months behind. The reviewer kept the paper in the review process until he could get his own work completed, and written up. He did this by raising objections to the content, to which my colleague responded in detail, then raising more objections, etc., all of which took months to resolve. My colleague's paper was only allowed to proceed after the reviewer's work was published.

This clearly unethical behavior probably happens more often than one would like, particularly when institutional pressure is brought to bear on the reviewer. But I think this is not too dissimilar to your situation, although maybe yours is a less extreme case. But frequently looking at the extremes can point the way to an answer.

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    This. Oh dear god this. My wife has had this happen to her several times now, though because the reviewers are confidential it's difficult to be certain the authors and the reviewers were the same people. but when you get 3 reviews and 2 go "4 minor points" and 1 does "3 page list of items some of which seem relevant but aren't". – Roger Willcocks Nov 30 '16 at 1:32
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IMO you have a conflict of interest and should not review the paper. Even if you are able to review the paper impartially, this is not good enough. Conflict of interest is also about maintaining trust in the system and this depends greatly on perception. If, from the purest of motives, you reject this paper and then. later, publish your own very similar work how do you think others will view it, especially the authors?

3

Not an answer but more than a comment.

Thanks for asking here.

I hope you can find a fair way to publish your paper along with this one. The history of HOMFLY poynomial in mathematics provides a model. Note the initials of the (somewhat independent) codiscoverers in this joint paper:

Freyd, P.; Yetter, D.; Hoste, J.; Lickorish, W. B. R.; Millett, K.; and Oceanu, A. "A New Polynomial Invariant of Knots and Links." Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. 12, 239-246, 1985.

1

This is a crucial issue with peer review. These are some suggestions, which are much pertinent in an era of open peer review and ongoing accountability.

First, DO NOT REVIEW the manuscript. Whatever your final decision would be, you could be strongly criticized for your revision as you cannot provide an independent review. In addition, your ongoing research project would be tarnished irremediably.

Second, proceed with submitting your work as it stands or doing whatever you now deem appropriate to improve it, but remember that you will always be liable to criticism by the authors of the manuscript (in the ideal scenario you should have turned down the invitation without even reading the abstract).

Third, do not tell any of your colleagues. I know this is largely unrealistic, but this is what the authors of the other manuscript would feel appropriate and demand.

You were indeed unlucky, but eventually the scholarly literature will reward the best paper. My more personal suggestion is though to aim for a mid-tier journal, in order to make sure your paper is considered and published well before the other has reached the scholarly literature.

protected by Alexandros Dec 8 '17 at 20:31

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