SFN11: The unbearable fear of scoopage

November 23, 2011

Interesting post up at the haydenlab blog:

In the post-SFN hangover phase, many neuroscientists are in a slightly more anxious state about the possibility that they are about to be scooped. Surely with all those posters, you must have seen someone who has the same brilliant idea in their head as you, right?

With a few exceptions, these fears turn out to be silly. Why?

The author then goes on to list a number of reasons why getting scooped* is not as bad as is usually imagined. I tend to agree** with the points being made. One that is obscured is that in most areas of real science, the paper that does the best job is going to rack up the the respect and citations. Even if it appeared after the very first report of the general phenomenon.

So I tend to think scientists should remember they are playing the long game. And not get too concerned about the possibility that they are about to get scooped.

*someone else manages to publish an experimental finding that you are working on before you get your paper published.

**the pursuit of GlamourMag science prioritizes the first publication of something over many other factors, including scientific quality and genuine impact, for example.

No Responses Yet to “SFN11: The unbearable fear of scoopage”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Crossposted from the other blog:

    I was scooped twice during my time at the bench, first as a PhD student in the UK, and latterly as a postdoc in the US.

    The first time was when our lab found a vasodilator effect of ATP that had been ignored by the 800 lb gorilla in the field; we presented the work at a couple of meetings, and when the paper was submitted it went to said leader in the field who rejected it, and quickly published a rapid communication suddenly discovering the same effect. As a final year grad student, giving a talk immediately after said big name gave theirs was intimidating, but rather thrilling.

    The second time, we were scooped by one of our collaborators – the lab that gave us the knockout mice for the study conveniently forgot to mention they were doing almost the same set of experiments, resulting in our paper not seeing the light of day for another two years.

    Now I work in science policy.


  2. Grumble Says:

    As one of my former PIs used to say, ideas are cheap. Therefore, in competitive fields, it makes no sense to do an experiment based on an obvious idea. Instead of worrying about being scooped, try coming up with an experiment that has a creative twist that your competitors are unlikely to think of.

    If you can’t think of one, it might be a good idea to go work in science policy.


  3. I have to agree with drug monkey here. My one encounter with true scoopery (thankfully, as an observer) occurred at a glamour mag. The methods in the two studies were quite different, but it was clear that there could only be one First Study.


  4. Beaker Says:

    Fear of scoopage is inversely correlated with the quality and quantity of scientific ideas a scientist generates.


  5. Juan Lopez Says:

    Beaker, in an ideal world you would perhaps be right. But this is not an ideal world. I AM afraid of being scooped but for reasons not mentioned here. Usually the first to publish something are cut some slack. My work can be as good as theirs, but simply because it comes after I may be expected to do more. I have seen it many times that the first and always-cited paper is not as good as the later ones. The first may get away with simply demonstrating that something is possible, while later authors are expected to do more. Another related reason is that once a scientist/group publishes on a topic, editors tend to ask them to review new papers on the topic. This means that if you got scooped, now you have to get your paper through your competitor. They have a vested interest in keeping their work as the unique piece on the topic (they are likely working on a follow-up) and they know all the details of the techniques. Even though their paper may have been simpler, they will still demand that you do more work. Only people actually working on the topic would realize that at some point the data had to be smoothed. Reviewers of the first paper do not know this, so they don’t ask about it. The authors avoid mentioning the issue, but when they review your paper, they complain loudly about your smoothing. My smoothing method could be better, heck it may even be the reason I got scooped.

    So, I AM worried about being scooped mainly because it may delay my own publication unfairly. It has nothing to do with the quality of the ideas or the work.


  6. biochembelle Says:

    The fear of scoopulation (as I prefer to call it) is an interesting phenomenon.

    First I posit that this fear is chiefly proportional to the (perceived) importance of (or lust for) a GlamourMag publication in one’s field. Physical scientists and mathematicians seem to be far less concerned about getting scooped than scientists in the biological/biomedical sciences (I do not personally know any social scientists so I don’t know where they fall).

    Second I posit that fear also scales with accessibility to technologies/methods. Most every institution has a flow cytometry core these days, so it might be quite trivial to return home and run a few FACS experiments. On the other hand, few labs have the resources and expertise to do protein NMR or high-res cryoEM (I imagine the same is true for certain animal models or behavioral assays), and there is a lower perceived probability of scoopage.

    Lastly I pass along another scientist’s thoughts on the subject. Craig Mello (one of the guys awarded a Nobel Prize for his work in RNA interference) commented in a seminar that in his experience, the fear of getting scooped was typically unwarranted; that more than 9 times out of 10, there was no harm was a sharing of information; that more often there was a shared benefit to collaboration, that the work was improved, and we shouldn’t allow the rare event/possibility of getting screwed over deter us from a potential gain.


  7. mikka Says:

    I’d like to think that the better work will get all the citations, but sadly that is not my experience. The real deciding factor nowadays for choosing one citation over another, specially with the (increasingly anachronistic) limits on bibliography size, is the journal where said citations reside. If you only have 30 references max, you are going to go for as many NCS as you can in order to impress on the reviewers that your work is relevant. And as you say NCS will go for priority over quality any day.
    And so the virtuous cycle of the glamour mags impact factor goes on unabated.


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