It’s every professor’s nightmare. At the end of a project, he and his graduate student write up the results of the research, and submit the paper. The journal editor promptly responds that they have already received and accepted a paper on a closely related topic. In light of this development, the editor is doubtful that the journal should publish their paper. The professor is distraught, and the graduate student still more so. Have his years of his work been for naught? Certainly not. Although being scooped will take some of the sheen off the paper, it should and can be published. Here are some strategies.
Is the rival paper really so close in topic? If there are significant differences in mechanism, substrates, etc., publication may still be appropriate. Point out the differences. Perhaps the paper is complementary to the one already published, extending its mechanisms into new areas. If the paper involves synthesis of the same molecule, were different pathways used? Does your method have advantages in high yield, or low cost? Was a new synthetic method invented which will have broad application in other areas?
When I was in graduate school I submitted a paper invoking a pentacoordinate intermediate and a pseudorotation mechanism to explain ligand permutation in a tetracoordinate silicon compound. During the review process a paper came out showing the X-ray crystal structure of a pentacoordinate compound prepared from “our” tetracoordinate silane, and, sure enough, their 5-coordinate compound easily underwent pseudorotation. Scooped! However, their specific pseudorotation mechanism was only one of several possibilities we discussed in our paper, and we did not consider it to be the most likely for our case. We were dealing with the kinetics of an unstable intermediate in solution, not an isolable compound, and our mechanism was unique. We pointed out the unique elements of our paper and it was accepted and published only a few months after our rival’s paper (in the same journal).
Simultaneous (almost) publication:
The quest for priority in publication can be overdone and is sometimes downright silly. If two groups are working towards the same goal, does it really matter if one publishes results a few weeks or a few months before the other? Historians will eventually give both researchers credit for the discovery. If an earlier paper is published on a truly identical topic, about the best you can do is argue that your paper serves to verify the results of the former one. This is essential in science. Any important finding must be confirmed and repeated. Make sure the published paper notes that the manuscript was received by the editor prior to the publication of the earlier paper. This way, the work’s independence will be established if not its priority.