commenting on someone else’s closely related work

A graduate student I know asked for advice and I don’t know the answer, so let’s see if any scatterplot readers do. How do you build good relations with someone whose work is closely related to yours without inadvertently over-influencing each other or encroaching on each others’ turf? The research involves reading archival sources and interpreting historical events, and the student has learned that a student at another university is working with overlapping archival materials and is addressing similar research questions employing similar frames for what was going on. The two projects are not identical in their full scope, but there is a point of definite overlap between them, on the order of, say, one chapter in a three chapter dissertation. Can they read and comment on each other’s work without risking loss of independence of discovery?  What boundaries should they set? I don’t do this kind of research, so I don’t have a lot of experience to work from. The student prefers to have a friendly “yay we are working on the same topic” relationship, not a competitive relationship, with the colleague. This is a pretty small research area where everybody knows everybody else in the area.

My own ideas: (1) full disclosure at the outset: each informing the other that there is some overlap; (2) cite each other’s draft papers in your own drafts as someone who is working on similar ideas. (3) in making comments on the other person’s paper, stay within the frame of what they have written, don’t “give away” your own paper ideas by way of comments. Instead, you can share your own working papers with them and have them cite them.

Question: is the person whose work is less far along at a disadvantage in this process? Should the person who has not written up a draft yet avoid reading the other person’s work until they have their own draft?

Are there other pitfalls I have not thought of?

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

6 thoughts on “commenting on someone else’s closely related work”

  1. Having work that overlaps with another scholar is every graduate student’s fear, I think. I suppose it is better to learn about it early and work it out together than to have that moment of panic just as the dissertation ink is drying. I can see this working out well if both scholars are thoughtful and communicative. Let’s hope they are.


  2. I agree with Tina — I remember having exactly this freakout. In my experience, the couple of times I thought someone was doing exactly the same thing as me, it turned out it wasn’t really all that similar once I saw more. So I guess I’m a proponent of the “yay more colleagues” approach. As long as the colleague is similarly friendly, I think it’s a win-win. I mean, it’s not like testing the same hypothesis on the same dataset using the same techniques.

    Of course, it’s probably good to be aware that the other person may feel threatened and to interpret any reluctance to communicate in a charitable way.


    1. I think the student is assuming good will on both parts, but still wondering what guidelines, if any, should be followed by both of them. Do you agree with me that they should be careful to cite each other’s working papers? I agree that having colleagues in your area doing similar work is good.


      1. Generous citation is probably a good practice in general, but especially in this kind of situation. But I personally wouldn’t be worried about not reading each other’s work so as not to be unduly influenced and so on. The possibility of it being generative seems greater than the possibility of being scooped. But maybe I’ve just never been burned.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My advice would be to try to set up the opportunity for collaboration on a published article around the overlapping part. Some dissertation committee’s might not be on board with this, in which case it can’t fly, but collaborative work in dissertations is already the norm in many (most?) fields and I don’t see any problem with it.

    I have been burned before. The two reasonable reactions I’ve seen have either been to be more guarded and secretive with your ideas or to try to build in the opportunity for collaboration on the overlapping parts from the start. I’m happier when doing the latter.


  4. I haven’t been “burned” per se, but a very prominent senior person published a paper very similar in argument to one on which I wrote my dissertation within six months of defending. I have also had the opportunity to meet great people who I now count as mentors and colleagues by being interested in similar topics.

    I second epopp’s sage advice above. Be very blunt and even uncomfortably honest about what the student wants to see. It might help to have someone not invested in the particular situation, but whom both students trust, to help them have the conversation.

    I think that citing each other’s work and clearly acknowledging the role that both played in the intellectual development of the project are key. Even if the students do not work on a collaborative chapter of the dissertation, a resulting article could certainly be dual-authored. And my guess would be that they both have a perspective that — at least to some degree — challenges received orthodoxy. If they could join forces to write a more theoretical critique jointly (even, possibly, as they are developing their dissertations), that could be a huge contribution for both as they enter the market.


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