Has my research been plagiarized? A paper similar to mine has appeared in another journal, yet my paper in still in peer review!

Research very similar to mine has just appeared in Journal A, but my paper is still stuck in peer review with Journal B! What do I do? Why does this happen?

This is actually a very common issue in academic publishing, especially in competitive (or small) research fields. Here are the two most likely explanations:

Explanation 1: Someone else working on the same, or similar, question was simply faster than you.

This is the most benign (and the most likely) reason.

Perhaps you did not select the best journal, at least in terms of speed. Of course, this happens all the time, especially in competitive (or small) fields. The stakes for success are high. People want the answer to a key question. For example, think about the vast numbers of researchers doing research on Covid-19 at the moment. 

Explanation 2: Someone else gained access to your work before submission, or while your paper was under review.

This is much more sinister! This leads us to consider the ethics of research, article submission, and peer review

  • One scenario is that perhaps you presented the results of your study at a conference and someone in the audience took away the idea (unethical behavior).
  • Another scenario is that one of your peer reviewers took your idea, ran with it, and was able to complete, write-up, and submit another paper (even more unethical).

The first of these two scenarios (someone at a conference heard your idea and stole it) is much harder to assess and deal with.

The second scenario (one of your peer reviewers has acted unethically) at least warrants some follow-up with the editor who is handling your submission. 

If you feel that a peer reviewer working on your article for a journal has acted unethically (such as in the example outlined here), you must write to the editor and explain the situation (don’t forget to attach a copy of the article from Journal A). The editor will then be able to assess if something untoward has taken place.

You might be unaware of the identity of your peer reviewers, for example. Peer reviewers get blacklisted all the time and, if someone has plagiarized from your paper or intellectual property (IP), then further action should be taken at their institution. 

Rule of thumb: if you have doubts or suspicions, flag it to your editor. You have nothing to lose!

Why it can be GOOD if similar work just been published in another journal

If more than one research team are interested in working on the same research question, it’s a good thing!

Why? It means that the work you are doing, the question you are addressing, is interesting

This is something we at Edanz often teach to graduate students. They tend to get worried and stressed when they hear that someone else is working on a similar question to their PhD or Masters thesis. This is a good thing! Your topic is interesting if others are also interested in discovering the answer. It’s a positive.

You want to see other published work within your specific area, on your topic. These other articles can be cited (positively or negatively) and give you ammunition for grant applications and your own future research articles!

Consider the alternative. If you are working in an area that is of zero interest to other researchers then who is going to read and cite your papers when you publish them

So what should I do if similar work just been published in another journal while mine remains in review? 

Take a step back. Then and have a careful read of the other article:

  • How similar are the results to yours?
  • Do the results corroborate, or refute yours? 
  • Do you have something to add to the newly published study? Do you agree with the conclusions? 
  • Do you disagree? Do your data suggest a different result? 

There are a number of possible steps you might choose to take in this situation.

  • Completely withdraw your article as it is just too similar to the one just published (unlikely, unless you have been plagiarized: Actually very uncommon); 
  • Add this additional recent citation to your paper and revise to incorporate (this is a likely course of action if the new paper is not too similar to yours and there is scope); 
  • Re-work your paper as either a ‘corroborating’ or ‘refuting’ piece in direct response to the new article that has just appeared. 

In cases where the new article is very similar to yours, this latter option might be the best available course of action. Two papers that appear at almost the same time in the same journal have a good chance of being highly cited, especially if they are counterpoints to one another. Editors are often very keen to publish such ‘comment and reply’ articles. Perhaps this is something to consider if you are experiencing this kind of situation? 

Conclusion: don’t panic! 

Don’t panic. Take a step back. We can help.

There are always solutions to problems like this. The most important thing is to make sure your research is still published and targeted to meet the demands of this new, unexpected situation. 

One way to ensure that this never happens to you, however, is to consider using preprint servers for your research. We’ll address the use of these preprint servers in a future blog post!  

Edanz can help

Our Edanz expert team of researchers, writers, and editors help authors around the world deal with just these kinds of situations every day. Why not  get in touch with our team to find out more and to learn how we could assist you re-working or re-writing an article in light of the recent publication of similar work? You can click here to learn more about our services and get in touch with our team. 

Edanz is a scientific research support service. We are committed to providing innovative solutions to the challenges faced by the international research community, from individual researcher and clinicians to large institutions. 

Edanz helps scientists reach their goals by providing guidance and support at every stage of research planning, execution, writing, and publication processes. Our teams include researchers, journal editors, peer reviewers, publication consultants, medical writers, and medical communications specialists. 

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