It’s not the end of the world if your research gets ‘scooped’

Take it as a compliment if other people are doing similar studies to you, says Sam Schwarzkopf

April 9, 2016
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A lot of young (and old) researchers are worried about being “scooped”. No, this is not about something unpleasantly kinky, but about when some other lab publishes an experiment that is very similar to yours before you do. Sometimes this is even more than just a worry and it actually happens. I know that this could be depressing. You’ve invested months or years of work and sleepless nights in this project and then somebody else comes along and publishes something similar and – poof – all the novelty is gone. Your science career is over. You will never publish this high impact now. You won’t ever get a grant. Immeasurable effort down the drain. Might as well give up, sell your soul to the Devil, and get a slave job in the pharmaceutical industry and get rich.

Except that this is total crap. There is no such thing as being scooped in this way, or at least if there is, it is not the end of your scientific career. In this post I want to briefly explain why I think so. This won’t be a lecture on the merits of open science, on replications, on how we should care more about the truth than about novelty and “sexiness”. All of these things are undoubtedly true in my mind and they are things we as a community should be actively working to change – but this is no help to young scientists who are still trying to make a name for themselves in a system that continues to reward high-impact publications over substance.

No. Here I will talk about this issue with respect to the status quo. I think even in the current system, imperfect as it may be, this irrational fear is in my view unfounded. It is essential to dispel these myths about impact and novelty, about how precedence is tied to your career prospects. Early-career scientists are the future of science. How can we ever hope to change science for the better if we allow this sort of madness to live on in the next generation of scientists? I say “live on” for good reason – I, too, used to suffer from this madness when I was a graduate student and postdoc.

Why did I have this madness? Honestly, I couldn’t say. Perhaps it’s a natural evolution of young researchers, at least in our current system. People like to point the finger at the lab principal investigators pressuring you into this sort of crazy behaviour. But that wasn’t it for me. For most of my postdoc I worked with Geraint Rees at University College London and perhaps the best thing he ever told me was to fucking chill. (He didn’t quite say it in those terms.) He taught me – more by example than words – that while having a successful career was useful, what is much more important is to remember why you’re doing it: the point of having a (reasonably successful) science career is to be able to pay the rent/mortgage and take some enjoyment out of this life you’ve been given. The reason I do science, rather than making a mint in the pharma industry, is that I am genuinely curious and want to figure shit out.

Guess what? Neither of these things depend on whether somebody else publishes a similar (or even very similar) experiment while you’re still running it. We all know that novelty still matters to a lot of journals. Some have been very reluctant to publish replication attempts. I agree that publishing high-impact papers does help wedge your foot in the door (that is, get you shortlisted) in grant and job applications. But even if this were all that matters to be a successful scientist (and it really isn’t), here’s why you shouldn’t care too much about that anyway:

No paper was ever rejected because it was scooped

While journal editors will reject papers because they aren’t “novel,” I have never seen any paper being rejected because somebody else published something similar a few months earlier. Most editors and reviewers will not even be aware of the scooping study. You may find this hard to believe because you think your own research is so timely and important, but statistically it is true. Of course, some reviewers will know of the work. But most reviewers are not actually bad people and will not say “Something like this was published three months ago already and therefore this is not interesting.” Again, you may find this hard to believe because we’ve all heard too many stories of reviewer 2 being an asshole. But in the end, most people aren’t that big of an asshole. It happens quite frequently that I suggest in reviews that the authors cite some recently published work (usually not my own, in case you were wondering) that is very similar to theirs. In my experience this has never led to a rejection but I ask to them to put their results in the context of similar findings in the literature. You know, the way a discussion section should be.

No two scooped studies are the same

You may think that the scooper’s experiment was very similar, but unless they actually stole your idea (a whole different story I also don’t believe but I have no time for this now) and essentially pre-replicated (preclicated?) your design, I’d bet that there are still significant differences. Your study has not lost any of its value because of this. And it’s certainly no reason to quit and/or be depressed.

It’s actually a compliment

Not 100 per cent sure about this one. Scientific curiosity shouldn’t have anything to do with a popularity contest, if you ask me. Study whatever the hell you want to (within ethical limits, that is). But I admit, it feels reassuring to me when other people agree that the research questions I am interested in are also interesting to them. For one thing, this means that they will appreciate you working and (eventually) publishing on it, which again from a pragmatic point of view means that you can pay those rents/mortgages. And from a simple vanity perspective it is also reassuring that you’re not completely mad for pursuing a particular research question.

It has little to do with publishing high impact

Honestly, from what I can tell neither precedence nor the popularity of your topic are the critical factors in getting your work into high-impact journals. The novelty of your techniques, how surprising and/or reassuringly expected your results are, and the simplicity of the narrative are actually major factors. Moreover, the place you work, the co-authors with whom you write your papers, and the accessibility of the writing (in particular your cover letter to the editors!) definitely matter a great deal also (and these are not independent of the first points either). It is quite possible that your “rival” (the sooner we stop thinking of other scientists in those terms, the better for all of us) will publish first, but that doesn’t mean you won’t publish similar work in a higher-impact journal. Journal review outcome is pretty stochastic and not really very predictable.

Actual decisions are not based on this

We all hear the horror stories of impact factors and h-indexes determining your success with grant applications and hiring decisions. Even if this were true (and I actually have my doubts that it is as black and white as this), a CV with lots of high-impact publications may get your foot in the door, but it does not absolve the panel from making a hiring/funding decision. You need to do the work on that one yourself and even then luck may be against you (the odds certainly are). It also simply is not true that most people are looking for the person with the most Nature papers. Instead, I bet you they are looking for people who can string together a coherent argument, communicate their ideas, and who have the drive and intellect to be a good researcher. Applicants with a long list of high-impact papers may still come up with awful grant proposals or do terribly in job interviews, while people with less stellar publication records can demonstrate their excellence in other ways. You may already have made a name for yourself in your field anyway, through conferences, social media, public engagement, etc. This may matter far more than any high-impact paper could.

There are more important things

And now we’re coming back to the work-life balance and why you’re doing this in the first place. Honestly, who the hell cares whether someone else published this a few months earlier? Is being the first to do this the reason you’re doing science? I can see the excitement of discovery but let’s face it, most of our research is neither like the work of Einstein or Newton nor are we discovering extraterrestrial life. Your discovery is no doubt exciting to you, it is hopefully exciting to some other scientists in your little bubble and it may even be exciting to some journalist who will write a distorting, simplifying article about it for the mainstream news. But seriously, it’s not so groundbreaking that it is worth sacrificing your mental and physical health over. Live your life. Spend time with your family. Be good to your fellow creatures on this planet. By all means, don’t be complacent, ensure that you make a living but don’t pressure yourself into believing that publishing ultra-high impact papers is the meaning of life.

A positive suggestion for next time…

Now if you’re really worried about this sort of thing, why not pre-register your experiment? I know I said I wouldn’t talk about open science here but bear with me just this once because this is a practical point you can implement today. As I keep saying, the whole discussion about pre-registration is dominated by talking about “questionable research practices”, HARKing, and all that junk. Not that these aren’t worthwhile concerns but this is a lot of negativity. There are plenty of positive reasons why pre-registration can help and the (fallacious) fear of being scooped is one of them. Pre-registration does not stop anyone else from publishing the same experiment before you but it does allow you to demonstrate that you had thought of the idea before they published it. With registered reports it becomes irrelevant if someone else published before you because your publication is guaranteed after the method has been reviewed. And I believe it will also make it far clearer to everyone how much who published what first where actually matters in the big scheme of things.

Sam Schwarzkopf is a cognitive and systems neuroscientist at the department of experimental psychology at University College London. This is an edited version of a post that appeared on his blog, NeuroNeurotic.

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Reader's comments (2)

Can I have some of whatever substance you've been actively taking? Having had rejection letters in hand starting on "unfortunately we must decline your submission for publication" and explaining it's because the editor knows that a similar argument is being reviewed in an unrelated journal; where that second paper's author has been at two 15-20person workshops where they picked up the argument from the rejectee's presentation slides [openly available, so 'prior art' not hard to establish]; and what's more, everybody narrowly involved in the topic knows it. People draw their own conclusions, are careful and strategic where the known offenders are concerned, whisper amongst each other but nothing whatsoever is public. Having seen senior academics confidently state ideas during presentations and in book chapters that they've picked up from junior academics's presentations, without any reference whatsoever: More than a handful of times. The consequences of these are sufficiently grave to make the difference between getting an ERC grant or not; so yeah, 'science' is more important than your scientific career, but it's not like you can help science once you've been pushed out and work for a company. Even Sir Venki [ ] wouldn't be a Nobel laureate heading the Royal Society if tight competition to revealing the ribosome structure would have run otherwise. True, this is about a 'scoop' in the newspaperman's sense, not my two previous paragraphs where it's in Tom Lehrer's "Lobachevsky" sense. The rest of the article, I don't find much more value in it.
Why don't you stop being such a bloody pessimist? He wrote a great article!

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