Otto Muskens Otto Muskens 19 May 2010

Getting scooped

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Posted in PhD life

Over the last 6 months I have been checking regularly the journals to see if anyone has published something in the direction of our research project. This morning, when I was just going online to check some references, the article hit me right between the eyes. There it was, my idea, the result looking exactly as I had expected it to be. Only the names of the authors are different; a leading US research group has apparently pursued the same concept and has already obtained the result we have been looking for during the last months.

For a scientist, there are few things worse than finding out that someone else has had the same idea and published it before you. To me personally the deception feels far worse than an unsuccessful grant application. It is like watching your claim to fame slip between your fingers. However getting scooped is a part of a scientist’s life, of which probably everyone can give more or less painful examples. I can imagine that getting scooped is an important source of health problems among scientists. Maybe the feeling will get less bad as you grow more senior and can pursue more ideas in parallel – or have had sufficient claims on your record. However as a starting researcher, you are dealing with the thin line between success and failure, knowing you had the good idea but not being able to demonstrate it. A colleague and friend advised me to stop trying to compete with the big groups, because with only one PhD student and £100k research budget we are not in a position to compete at this point. I do not agree with this. Perhaps we will not be able to compete in resource-intensive areas such as fabrication of high efficiency solar cells. However, I believe that we have a chance when pursuing original research ideas which can be achieved using modest infrastructure.

The most important ingredient for this strategy to succeed is that nobody else on this planet gets the same idea at the same time. Because when they do and put a full-force research team on it then indeed we are lost. However, it seems almost a scientific law that, whenever you get a brainwave, someone else usually develops the same concept at about the same time. This form of telepathy appears strange, since clearly nobody has thought of it during the last century. Interestingly, it is the current state-of-the-art of knowledge in combination with the open questions in the field, which results in different people thinking along the same lines. Then suddenly new concepts pop up and are being picked up by several groups simultaneously. Of course there is always the chance of information leaking out either through grant applications or through contact between group members (in my example this was definitely not the case).

The good news of the story is that apparently we were not stupid and this was a sound scientific idea. Thinking about it, they clearly were the first and did a great job in working it out to the point that they proved the concept. And back at the time that I got the idea they were probably already well ahead and writing the manuscript. So it is best to straighten our backs again (after a good glass of whiskey) and move forward. Since the scientific idea has now been proven, we can now try to move one step further than our competitors – who most likely will do the same. The bad news is that probably many groups will soon jump into this direction as well so it will be hard to maintain a lead for a long time. So we will again have to work hard during this summer to get some results.

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  1. Mirjam

    20 May 2010 16:01, Mirjam

    Ouch, I can imagine that that feels terrible! Sorry you got scooped…
    It does raise an interesting question though: when is the right time to ‘pee on the tree’ and claim your territory, for instance in a presentation at a conference? I suppose only when you’ve got the first results and are pretty sure you’ll publish in the not too far away future, but I am interested to hear what other people think. In informal discussions between certain professors I have sometimes noticed that one will claim that (s)he is almost ready to publish on a particular topic, while the first experiments still need to be done, just to scare the other away. I think that is bad practice…

  2. Klaas Wynne

    22 May 2010 13:55, Klaas Wynne

    That’s a terrible thing to happen! Hope you had some good whisky… As for strategy: if you are in a hot field, you’re more likely to get scooped but then again, if you have a first, your paper will get many citations. Maybe one should try to have a mix of research going on: some exciting stuff mixed with some more pedestrian work. That way, at least you get a regular stream of papers and, if you play the game right, you’ll get your paper in Really Good Journal too.

  3. Otto Muskens

    24 May 2010 1:22, Otto Muskens

    @Mirjam, yes that is the exactly the question that I am now thinking about. This month my student will give a talk at a conference and I am now considering to indeed ‘pee the tree’ and put some unpublished data in there which we will most likely submit in the coming months. It is a bit risky though!

    @Klaas, I agree with the relation between exciting research and getting scooped. Doing hot research in general is very stressful but can be rewarding at times. Probably best is to stay calm and set out a path which suits you with topics that you genuinely like. I try not to get distracted too easily by the latest literature. Sometimes I feel you can also read too much and get agitated and jumpy.

  4. Unregistered

    25 May 2010 15:13, Jan

    I think there is another very important lesson to learn from this: never ever EVER talk about anything at a conference or during a visit that is not yet submitted.

    It sounds so simple but unfortunately we learned the hard way. We presented results at a conference while we were still finalizing the paper. A few months later a paper was published with exactly our result by someone else who was present in person.

    Imagine your face when you not “just” get scooped but when someone actually just copy-pastes your results. Admittedly, that cannot happen so easily in experiments but even so: someone might pick up your idea and do it with larger ressources before you can finish your job.

  5. Unregistered

    24 Aug 2010 17:24, Vitaliy

    The fact that my idea was used by someone means that my scientific behavior is not original, that is normal. How to be unpredictable for other researchers? One way is to think about something unthinkable today (fantasy, fairy tails). Another way is to use ideas coming from your own nature. Some interesting staff can be found in

  6. Unregistered

    5 Sep 2010 17:41, Stephanie

    What do you all think of Gordon Research Conferences, where is it a requirement that the expert researchers in attendance present only unpublished work? The conferences are “closed” and off-the-record, at least in theory. I am a young student and so am liable to believe that everyone at a Gordon Conference is noble and operates with honest and just intentions. I also see how this is perhaps a lot to ask of 300+ eminent researchers working on the same sub-topic.

    I’ve recently begun to volunteer in a Gordon Seminar organizational committee, so this is all very relevant to me. Please, everyone comment and let me know you thoughts.

  7. Mirjam

    11 Sep 2010 9:45, Mirjam

    Maybe *only* unpublished work is too strong a statement, but they certainly encourage presenting a fair amount of unpublished work. I have only limited experience with these meetings (attended 2 GRC conferences so far, none of the junior seminars), but I am sure that people still think carefully about what they present. People probably don’t give every detail of the very hottest stuff that they are planning to write up for some high impact journal… And it also depends on the community, I suppose. Some are more open than others. Some of this also depends on the kind of research: if it takes a lot of effort to set up an experiment and collect data then it is probably safe to talk about it a while before publishing, because it would take another too much time to reproduce it anyway. This leaves the case of actual stealing of the data, which seems an unlikely event to me, as it would not be too hard to uncover if there were 100 other people in the audience…

  8. Otto Muskens

    19 Sep 2010 22:21, Otto Muskens

    I know of a recent example where one author presented results on a Gordon Research conference, and several days later another professor showed in his talk that they had been reproducing the effect in his own lab during those two days. This shows that your results are not safe even at a Gordon conference!

    Especially if you have only one student and 100k budget you will never win from those big research groups with nearly unlimited equipment and manpower. The only way is to hide your results until everything is safely in the journals.

  9. Mirjam

    22 Sep 2010 21:38, Mirjam

    @Otto: personally, I would also err on the safe side, but on the other hand there does not necessarily need to be a problem with another group reproducing your results. The real question is what they do with them: publish without giving you credit or …?

  10. Unregistered

    30 Mar 2011 20:47, Prasad

    I feel your pain.I just found out that the NICHD has published an exact study as my hypothesis. I had completed my analysis and I was stuck in the PhD formalities (qualifiers etc) for too long to finish the paper. Now I find my data as a small subset of a national analysis. I think I made a mistake presenting my results in a national conference. My advice, never present your results in a conference if you are not done with your final article.

  11. Unregistered

    2 Apr 2011 12:50, Vitaly

    I do not feel your pain, but I can understand your motivation. But from another side why to make a big fuse of it?
    When you go to shop and someone takes the thing you wanted to take, what is your reaction? Pain? Disappointment? I guess not.
    Science is a huge field and if someone did the same as you – do not stop, do not blame (him or some one else) and thank him for the good job and free lesson. After this just go on.

  12. Unregistered

    31 May 2013 19:30, Frank Witte

    I know the feeling of being scooped. But one thing should never be forgotten when you get scooped: had timing been a little different the others would have been scooped. Would one outcome have been more “just” than another? Evidently not!
    I don’t think we should over-dramatize the effects of being scooped though. For one: we’re hardly ever talking about real break-throughs that will earn you a Nobelprize or will cause a constant of Nature to be named after you. Most of the time we’re talking about a small step in the right direction for which it is absolutely fine to have a second independent confirmation. So your paper will still be publishable … and if it is more readable and more transparent then I wouldn’t be surprised if it is going to attract more citations.

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