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.