A few months ago, I submitted a manuscript. After the reviews were completed I received a rejection decision from the Associate Editor (AE). The rejection was based on the basis of a single rejection recommendation by one of the four reviewers. The journal has very high standards so this is not uncommon. However, the reason for the rejection appears really awkward to me. The reviewer wrote in his/her report that another paper with a similar idea was submitted (not published) in another journal. He/she wrote that the submission date of the other paper was earlier than mine so the originality of my idea is questionable. The AE agreed with this report and adopted this argument in the rejection letter.
I want to emphasize that my results were independently developed and I have no knowledge whatsoever of the other manuscript which according to the reports that were attached has not been published yet. The whole situation seems rather awkward and I am not sure how to react. Of course the reviewer's identity is not known to me, but I find it hard to believe that he/she is not an author or somehow related to the author of the other paper.
Furthermore, I feel really offended by these comments as it appears to me that I am implicitly being accused of plagiarism. I am considering writing a letter to the Editor in Chief. I do not want to change the decision, but I would like to make clear that my results were independently obtained. Also, what are your thoughts on how should I proceed with my manuscript?
I don't think there is any point in writing to the EiC, if you don't want to actually appeal the decision. I would simply send a note to the AE who handled the paper:
Thank you for handling my paper. I accept your decision. I would simply like to state that the results in my paper were obtained independently, and I had no previous knowledge of the unpublished manuscript mentioned by Reviewer #4. I will look forward to reading and citing this paper when it becomes publicly available.
Then submit your paper somewhere else, quickly (though after making any revisions suggested by these reviewers). I would be inclined to include a comment to the new journal's editor, saying that you have heard there is a paper under review somewhere with similar results, but you have been unable to obtain a copy of the paper or any further information about it. You could also emphasize that you have obtained your results independently of any other reseacher / group.
If the other work hasn't been published, it sounds unreasonable to claim plagiarism. The reviewer could have conceivably claimed plagiarism of prior related published work, but didn't.
Since the lack of citation was the only objection, you can try asking for the contact details of the author(s) so you can review and cite their work, with a view to resubmitting your own paper afterwards.
Personal correspondence can be cited and properly attributed, so I don't see a technical issue here so long as you don't reference the identity of the reviewer in your correspondence. Even if the reviewer was the other paper's author, it's the author-role (on the other paper) that you're interacting with, not their role as reviewer of your own paper.
In relation to writing to the editor, I don't see any harm in protesting your innocence regarding plagiarism. However note that as reviews aren't normally published (so in theory, there's no wider circulation of the plagiarism claim) and since it's your word against the reviewer's, there might not be much practically that can be done, beyond a file note that they have received your correspondence.
There are many cases of simultaneous discoveries in history, so don’t let others take your credit when it’s not justified.This story could also be inspiring.
If your field has a preprint culture and your target journals allow for this, publish a pre-print of your paper immediately. This way you can establish with a certain confidence that you arrived at your results independently – assuming that there is no pre-print of the alleged other paper (and even then, the difference in time may be sufficiently short to be regarded as evidence for independent discovery).
If you cannot publish a pre-print, at least obtain a time stamp of your paper. While it may not help you in the and, at least some ways (in particular publishing a hash of your paper) are almost no effort.
I would argue that the only acceptable evidence of the other paper is the paper itself. Now how could the journal have obtained this?
The other paper is publicly available (e.g., on a pre-print repository) or its authors have allowed for a free dissemination of the pre-print. In this case, you should be given the information needed to access the paper.
The reviewer had the paper under some restrictions and shared it with the journal. This very likely means that the reviewer violated these restrictions (peer-review confidentiality or trust by the authors). I can contrive some exceptions like the authors sharing the paper with the reviewer and allow them to share it if they happen to peer-review a similar paper – but that’s, well, contrived.
The other paper’s authors explicitly gave it to the journal that rejected your paper (or agreed that it is given to them). This poses the question how the authors of the other paper would know about this or the journal knew whom to ask? Keeping in mind that the reviewer cannot ask the authors back without breaching peer-review confidentiality, this leads us to slightly modified variants of the previous points: If the reviewer can freely share the identity of the other paper’s author, they can also share it with you. If the reviewer cannot freely share the identity, they almost likely breached some kind of trust.
The reviewer was able to share it due to being an author of the paper. This is a clear conflict of interest.
The journal doesn’t have the paper and just relies on the reviewer’s word.
Either way, this would be very fishy and I see good reasons for appealing to the journal’s decision (or making a scandal out of it).
The existence of another paper going in a similar direction does not mean that you plagiarised it, but it does evidence that the topic is indeed relevant. Moreover, if the other paper has not been accepted yet, it may very well that the peer review found flaws that your paper doesn’t have. All of this are good arguments for any journal (either the one that rejected your paper or another one) to accept your paper, if the quality of the research is undisputed.
I feel the reviewer is referring to the preprint of the manuscript that I guess you have missed out. Write the reviewer to send you a copy of that manuscript which he believes is very similar to yours. Go through that manuscript and find out how it is different from yours(I hope there should be some different results if you have obtained the results independently). Try to convenience the reviewer how your results are different then the other one.
I am afraid if the reviewer is not convinced and don't accept the manuscript, you need to rework on your manuscript and send it to the other journal.
Why don't you register your paper with the US Copyright Office essentially publishing your work, and then when you go for peer review, your ideas are already protected?