In the previous issue of IMMPress, we looked at measures that graduate students can take to avoid being scooped: staying well-informed, carving out unique research niches, and prioritizing collaboration instead of competition whenever possible. Nevertheless, the growth of biology research on a global scale means that, inevitably, labs around the world often pursue overlapping scientific programs. As a result, getting scooped can catch even the most cautious and prepared researchers by surprise.

What options do you have if another group was simply faster or more resourceful than yours? Although by default you may be swamped with negative emotions – frustration, regret, and denial – there really is little time to waste. In the case of being scooped, acceptance is the first step to recovery. Clear your head and spend a considerable amount of time scrutinizing the competing article to examine its strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly, figure out whether you can differentiate their approaches and interpretations from your unpublished work. This kind of in-depth comparison can dictate your next move.

Even if the observations in the published paper mirror your preliminary results, they may have been assembled through different methodologies or experimental systems. In these cases, there is a chance to salvage the scooped project by supplementing your own data with experiments that continue along a related vein of questioning. Even though your data will have lost some of its novelty, it can still be applied to validate and extend the scope of the observations made by the published paper. In some situations, being scooped can even expedite swifter publication of your own manuscript, provided that you can distance your work enough while building on their previously published findings. Speed is of the essence however, since the lab that scooped you won’t exactly be standing still after their paper has come out. Good scientists don’t rest on their laurels, so expect the competing group to commit themselves fully to follow-up research projects in the same area. Avoiding heavy investment in the most obvious next steps may eschew direct competition. This may prove decisive if the lab that scooped you enjoys relatively greater manpower or access to resources.

Unfortunately, there are instances where a paper that scoops you not only proves your hypothesis but also goes well beyond the scope and quantity of your unpublished data. Your competitors may have finished experiments that you had planned months down the road or had never even thought of, resulting in a near-impossible rescue mission. Ahmad Zaheen, an alumnus of the Department of Immunology, was faced with this situation during his MSc in Dr. Alberto Martin’s lab. For his main project, Ahmad was interested in determining the role a pro-apoptotic protein in the context of the B-cell germinal centre response in vivo. While he was generating data at a steady pace, Ahmad abruptly discovered that an Australian group well established in the field of lymphocyte apoptosis had found and published the answer to his story, with the same knockout mouse model no less. The yes or no nature of the research question left Ahmad without the option of salvaging his own data in a follow-up manuscript. Ultimately, he made the painful decision to discontinue the project that had been a year in the making.

Being scooped out of the blue left Ahmad thoroughly frustrated. “Sometimes it feels like science is the only field where hard work isn’t always rewarded,” he reflects. Nevertheless, with the help of his support system – family, friends, lab mates and Dr. Martin – Ahmad managed to get back onto his feet. In this respect he mentions, “What helped the most was not wallowing in something that was beyond my control and getting right back on the horse.” With this mentality in tow, Ahmad applied the techniques and expertise gained from his scooped work towards a new project. The scooping incident accelerated his development and maturity as a graduate student. As he describes, “the threat of being scooped again provided that little bit of motivation when I was feeling sluggish in the lab or debating working over the weekend.” This drive combined with the experience he gained from his scooped project greatly increased his productivity. Eventually, Ahmad achieved a degree of personal redemption by publishing this second project in the same journal where his first was scooped.

Graduate school comes with its own unique set of ups and downs. Having a soon-to-be published project scooped is a crushing low. Even so, being scooped takes nothing away from the positive aspects of working on a research project – developing an experimental skill set, learning how to problem-solve, and thinking creatively. Years later, Ahmad looks back with a lighter perspective: “the academic value I gained outweighed the setback of losing all that work after a false start.” As a graduate student, remember that a PhD or Masters is a time for personal growth as well as research productivity.

 

References

Mole. “Stealing Thunder II.” J Cell Sci 117. Jul 2004: 3407-3409. Print.

Muskens, Otto. “Getting scooped.” Science Survival Blog 19 May 2010. 6 Jun 2013 (http://www.sciencesurvivalblog.com/phd_life/getting-scooped_2435). Weblog entry.

Pearson, Helen. “Competition in biology: It’s a scoop!” Nature News. 27 Nov 2003. Print.

Powell, Kendall. “Winning ways.” Nature 442. Aug 2006: 842-843. Print.

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Michael Le

Managing Editor
Michael is a 4th year PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto studying how B cells diversify their antibodies to fight infections. He enjoys staying active, playing board games, and supporting his beloved Arsenal FC.

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