Recently I submitted a paper and found that someone else was working on the same problem. (In this particular case there was more involved, as well as a possible breach of ethics, but none of that is relevant to the point I am trying to make in this post.) I don’t have any statistics here, but this seems to happen relatively often in our field. It has happened to me at least 3 times — once on a problem that I would consider relatively obscure — with the result being a merged paper each time. Sometimes the results obtained were incomparable, but it was determined that a merge was in everyone’s best interests as well as the right thing to do scientifically. Other times the results were essentially the same.
I know I am not alone in this. At just about every conference there is at least one merged paper (I am aware of one at the upcoming TCC). An example from the summer that caught my attention was a set of three overlapping results showing constructions of HIBE based on lattices: here, here, and here. I am aware of several other examples as well, though will refrain from mentioning them since sometimes the authors don’t want information about the way a paper was written to become public. (Feel free to share your own stories in the comments…)
What does it mean? Are there too few [good] problems to work on, so that we are all mining the same ground? If so, is this an indication that the community is stuck in a rut, or have we all just collectively identified what are the most important problems? While I think this explains part of the issue, many of the cases I am aware of involve, as I said, pretty obscure problems that are not the type I would expect everyone to jump on. Perhaps the social nature of our field, with people discussing their latest results at workshops, and open problems being “in the air”, encourages people to focus on similar sets of problems. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
What do you think?