Monday, July 18, 2011

Getting scooped

Well, it happened (sort of). Another group recently published the results of an experiment we are trying to do in a prominent journal for our field. Now at first, I was upset about it, given that this experiment is the core of one of my student's PhDs. It is really easy to see this work in print, and get all freaked out.

Taking a second look, I found that Namnezia is totally right about scientific scooping (in my decidedly not crystallography/single answer field). Our experiment is similar in broad outline to what has been published, but the details vary in some very significant ways. Yes, we may be second, but at least we have had our thinking validated! First of all, this is an interesting scientific problem--at least one other good group is working on solving it. Second, our original intuition has been confirmed, demonstrating that our GENERAL approach will definitely work (which wasn't at all guaranteed). I am also hoping that a little competition will be motivating, but on that one, you never know.

Now, I would certainly have been happier to be the first to demonstrate this concept, but the sky isn't falling, this didn't wreck my tenure chances, my student will still get nice publications, and all our hard work to date isn't wasted. In some ways this is new to me (much of my prior work was on REALLY niche systems or in systems with a relatively high barrier to entry). I am actually pretty happy to have more scientific playmates now, so to speak. But everything is a mixed blessing, so working in a more populated area of science means things like this are going to happen.

Our approach has a different set of advantages and disadvantages than the one already published, so I still think our project will produce some interesting new science. Fortunately, being first doesn't really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things.


Dr. Dad, PhD said...

I had the same thing happen to me last year. At first I was really frustrated because I'd poured everything I had for several years into getting my Society Pub (we are a small lab and I don't have any help with experiments), only to get scooped by a Glamour mag from a super famous lab....

Once I calmed down, I realized that it did provide great validation for what I had been thinking (and probably made my manuscript easier to accept). I also met the lead author and developed a working friendship. Which saved me from having to put arsenic in his drink.

In addition, they were looking at the problem from a totally different way, so I was able to get some new ideas from their work and create a new avenue of research to pursue (that I had initially thought was too exploratory). I'm trying to parlay this new direction into either a K99 or a portion of my research as a new faculty member.

All in all, not the worst thing that could happen.

GMP said...

You win some, you lose some. We scooped a couple of groups in the past few years, and were also scooped ourselves. When it happens to me/my group, it's usually my fault (I want everything to be just so and sometimes wait too long) or the student is simply too slow/too many setbacks. Often, being first with incomplete results is better than being second with a complete story where everything is purty... But I don't like to publish half-baked stuff... I guess I have hangups to get over.

But in general I agree, it's never just a single angle to any problem. But being first to tackle a problem, regardless of angle, does put you in a position to shoot for higher prestige journals. Being second or third (as my collaborator says being "an also-ran") is not bad but... Let's face it, not as good as being first.

Do I sound bitter much? :)
I guess I am -- we had a two-year head start on a hot topic and got outrun because of several setbacks and a smart but very sloppy student. Now we are just "also-ran"s.

Alexandra (Ola) Jacunski said...

I haven't any experience in this area, what with being a brand new grad student, but I'm sure you can take the "new playmates" thing and work it to your advantage. You might be able to start building up new ideas by seeing them in new ways, or even has your colleagues' work inspire new work of your own... and besides, a little competition never hurt anyone. :)

That being said, sorry that it happened. Just don't let your PhDs freak out so much they stop functioning :P

Namnezia said...

I disagree with GMP. Yes being first for something with a single answer will make it harder to publish in Science or Nature. But otherwise, I think that strong science with a unique angle will almost always get published in high-impact journals. I mean you can make the argument that everyone is an "also ran", there aren't that many truly new things published out there.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments!

I agree with Dr. Dad and Namnezia--while it is better to be first all things being equal, I don't think that being scooped is so bad. Certainly not as bad as I feared before it happened to me. This work was never going to get into a Glamour mag, but I think it will still go to a good high-impact specialty journal.

That is the line I am walking--how to use this to motivate my student without freaking them out (or making them complacent).

GMP said...

:) It is clear that among all the commenters I am at the highest risk for a peptic ulcer or hypertension!

prodigal academic said...

Hey, GMP--that Type A personality has gotten you this far! For me, the other stresses of TT life far outweigh getting scooped on one aspect of my research.

Nathan said...

Yes, I got underscooped after a lab saw my poster at an ASCB meeting. They published the phenotype w/o any mechanism. I figured out the mechanism. I learned my lesson......meetings are for reconnaissance only not presenting unpublished data. If asked about your data, say you can read about it. Only share it with your own lab and university. Why do journals place such a premimium on novelity rather than quality?

Anonymous said...

I'm a fifth year graduate student in a neuroscience lab. My project of 3 years was scooped by a colleague and collaborator of my project very recently. Her paper was accepted by a good journal during the time when we were revising the manuscript for resubmission to another journal with a higher impact factor. Our paper was subsequently rejected with one of the reasons being the story is no longer novel. My colleague somehow was able to do her project (without our knowledge) with her ex-PI in another country. I'm at a loss as to what to do now. Revising the manuscript to something different will mean that I will need to extend my stay in graduate school. Not revising it means we have to send it to a low impact factor journal now.