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In an answer to the question How to protect scientific open research from being patented? one reads

...if you publish your research, this protects from anyone subsequently filing a patent on it. Even if they had invented it previously, your publication would invalidate a future application.

Now, consider the field of Mathematics. Say a mathematician has obtained a nice result, but for whatever reason can't publish a paper on it momentarily. Can they do anything to hold some kind of priority over anyone else that comes up with it and publishes it before them? If so, what happens in practice if someone else does indeed publish it before them? The practical result of this "protection" should be the ability to make the journal take your paper (which you should quickly write) instead of the one by the researcher who published before.

In particular, would time-stamping work?

  • Priority for what purpose? If your concern is patents, then filing a patent would be the thing to do. – Jon Custer Oct 23 '17 at 15:00
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    @JonCuster Can a mathematical result be patented? I don't think so – Richard Oct 23 '17 at 15:15
  • If the math result is an encryption algorithm, why not? But, the point is, you started the question talking about patents, then went to priority of results without indicating just why you think you need priority - patent, glory, what? Different goals will likely have different methods. – Jon Custer Oct 23 '17 at 15:20
  • Possible duplicate: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/66052/… – StrongBad Oct 23 '17 at 15:20
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    @glauc doesn't work. "If you have a sealed envelope that is postmarked with a date, that only proves that the envelope passed through the postal system on that day. It says nothing about what the contents of the envelope were at the time; notably, the envelope could be mailed unsealed and then filled and sealed at a later date." (Via Law.SE.) – ff524 Oct 23 '17 at 17:18
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Now, consider the field of Mathematics. Say a mathematician has obtained a nice result, but for whatever reason can't publish a paper on it momentarily.

This bears further explanation. Publication in mathematics does not happen so quickly, but if you have a "nice result," you should be able to submit it for publication.

Can they do anything to hold some kind of priority over anyone else that comes up with it and publishes it before them?

If two different mathematicians or groups of mathematicians obtain results at approximately the same time, they should both be able to publish. The gap between submission and acceptance of most math papers is typically 3-18 months (with anything less than six being quite speedy), and the gap between acceptance and publication is another 6-24 months or so. So if a rival paper gets published before you submitted yours, there are three possibilities: (i) the other paper was in fact first; (ii) you delayed submission for a significant length of time, or (iii) you experienced substantial delays in the publication process (including rejections of your paper).

For most mathematicians, the best way to hedge against getting scooped is to (i) write up your results in a timely manner, and (ii) post the paper to the arxiv as soon as (or even slightly before) the initial submission. In the mathematical community, an arxiv preprint will have the same effect towards establishing "priority" as a formal publication. It also has the chance to alert a rival group to the overlap of effort before the works have been published. When this happens, the two groups should examine each others papers and decide how best to proceed. In some cases this means that each paper cites the other and they both get published. In some cases the work is combined into one joint paper. And yes, sometimes one of the groups decides that what they have done is "majorized" by the other group and decides not to try to publish their work.

From the way your question is framed, I have the suspicion that you are not very familiar with mathematical publication culture and may be thinking about things in somehow the wrong way, but I can't put my finger on what it is. But in particular you write

If so, what happens in practice if someone else does indeed publish it before them?

and

That is, the practical result of this "protection" should be the ability to make the journal take your paper (which you should quickly write) instead of the one by the researcher who published before.

With regard to the first quoted passage: with very high probability, the prior publication will stand without formal comment and you will be left to try to explain/establish why your paper should still be published. I have seen "statements of priority" published about math papers, but probably fewer than ten in my entire life.

With regard to the second quoted passage: first of all, no author has "the ability to make the journal take your paper" in any circumstance whatsoever. I'm not sure I completely understand the situation you contemplate: if the journal has already published the other paper, then it is too late for them to take your paper "instead." If you're saying that they should retract the published paper and publish yours instead...well, I have never seen that happen. The only circumstance in which I think that could even be plausible is if the authors of the other paper literally stole your work and passed it off as their own.

Also...what do you mean "which you should quickly write"? If you see a published paper on work that you've completed but haven't even written up yet, then as mentioned above that other paper was probably written 1.5-3 years before yours. So how could you have priority in this situation?

  • Thank you for your answer, sir. As for the last paragraph, I would say that while the paper was not totally written, it just lacked just a few things. But I get the overall conclusion that such a "protection" is not possible – Richard Oct 23 '17 at 16:40
  • @Richard: Unless you know the authors and the timeline of their work, I still don't understand why you would even think that you have chronological priority in that situation. – Pete L. Clark Oct 23 '17 at 18:59
  • Here's what I had thought: "if I could prove that at a given time (proof of existence) I produced the said result, maybe I'll have priority over someone else who comes up with it, submits to publish it (but hasn't published yet) and produces a preprint, but can't prove they had found it before me". I now understand this is not true, and I wasn't crystal clear in the OP – Richard Oct 24 '17 at 9:11
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    "Comments: While this paper was being written up, the preprint [blah] appeared. The author(s) feel their approach warrants [... etc]" <-- if you want to finish and put the paper on the arXiv, which no one will stop you doing. Publishing is a separate question, but at least your work is made public, and may still get citations and, better, possible feedback. – David Roberts Oct 24 '17 at 17:08

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