When you are not the first one

By Emily Farthing

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cope with Scooping

phd comics

I once spoke to an old friend about the pressure to publish in science and the resulting competition between competing groups to get your research out first. A civil servant without a scientific background, he made a sarcastic quip along the lines of ‘oh yeah, the cutting, dynamic world of scientific journalism’. But, rightly or wrongly, there is the constant pressure to publish, and publish in high quality journals. ‘Publish or perish’; with fewer papers to your name, it’s still possible to get jobs but this will become harder the further you get into your early scientific career.

And with multiple groups around the world working on the same or very similar projects and competing to get their story out first, a real fear for many scientists is to discover another group has achieved publishing glory in a high impact journal, eliminating the possibility of your data getting published or severely bumping it down the impact factor pyramid.

Everyone seems to have a scoop story and for me it happened a few weeks ago. After discovering in October that another group was very close to publishing My Gene (the loveable rogue of my PhD, which has caused me exasperation and joyful results in equal measure), my supervisor and I upped our game and jumped into overdrive, finishing experiments and collecting data that would round off the story in time to publish in the new year. I was positive, motivated and excited about my data; I had now spent 3 years making, testing and characterising my mutant yeast and plant babies and wasn’t about to have some scoundrel from another lab bask in the publishing glory!

Then a bright, frosty morning in January, I pop round to see my supervisor and am greeted with a hot-from-the-printer copy of The Other Group’s paper. At first glance the title itself seemed to summarise at least 2 of my planned thesis chapters and, naturally, I decided it was the end of the world. After a long meeting with my supervisor and lots of swearing, however, I was convinced not to throw eggs at the villains in The Other Group or bury my head in the sand, and we devised a plan of action.

It’s quite difficult to explain this to non-academic friends and family, who want to understand but don’t see the problem with someone getting there first. My parents tried to reassure me that it should be a comfort that I am clearly working in an exciting, cutting edge field, if several groups around the world are working in the same area. To an extent that’s true, and getting exciting results can make the long hours and occasionally mind-numbing experiments worth it. But having someone else publish your data (let’s be honest, it is now their data) can make the last few years feel like a waste of time and it is very easy to lose motivation.

I tried to explain this to my dad. I likened it to a project that he is passionate about, has invested a lot of time, energy and money in planning, and is really excited about sharing with his friends and the public. One day he gets up to put the final touches in place before The Big Reveal, only to find that John Doe, who has secretly been working on the exact same thing, got up slightly earlier than him to present it to the world and has stamped his name on it. Everyone says what a good job John Doe has done and no one really knows Dad has also spent the last few years working on it. Depending on the similarity to John Doe’s work, Dad might never be able to share that project with the public, or if he does, it won’t be as high impact because it is no longer new and exciting. This will likely have an impact on whether or not he can work on the projects he is passionate about in the future.

Apologies for the dodgy analogy and I promise I will now get to the point.

What should you do if you are scooped? The more sensible-sounding pieces of advice below came from my worldly-wise supervisor and from various sources gleaned from the internet (sourced at the end of this article)

  • Don’t panic (too much). Invest in some chocolate buttons and have a little sulk.
  • Having been working in full-speed-ahead mode to get the damn thing out, I found it useful to have a weekend out of the lab and come in with a fresh mind on Monday. But equally, try not to take your foot of the pedal or lose motivation.
  • Examine the paper in minute detail and interpret their results: do you agree with their interpretations of the data? Are there any holes (suspicious or otherwise) that need to be filled?
  • Compare the work to your own; yes it’s similar but is there any difference in the methods or approaches taken?
  • Compare the results with your own; do your findings match theirs? Do your findings disagree with theirs? If they are different enough, is there a big enough difference to jump on that bandwagon instead and propose a rebuttal paper?
  • Chances are you would rather throw eggs at them, but if there is little difference between this paper and yours, is there any chance of collaboration with this group?
  • Discuss all of this with your supervisor; they will know whether it is worth keeping going or whether to move onto something else. And they almost definitely have scoop stories of their own.

Above all, try to remain positive. Unlike PhD candidates from other countries, we are lucky in the UK in that we don’t have to publish to graduate. And as a friend who successfully viva’d last year kept reiterating throughout the final stretch of her degree, remember that a PhD just has to be a ‘novel contribution to the field of science’.

 

Additional readings: 

Naturejobs about scooping

PhdAdvice on the matter

 

 

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