Getting scooped – a colloquialism feared by naïve graduate students and battle-hardened professors alike. To see your own hard work and creative experimentation in print – beaten to the publication punch by a competing group – can conjure up a whirl of negative emotions. Every graduate student, especially those leaning towards a long-term career in science, should recognize that the unwelcome situation of being scooped is a constant menace in the modern academic climate.
It comes as no surprise that most fields within immunology are highly competitive; research groups of different shapes and sizes frequently vie for the same intellectual territory. Labs that dare to ask the most profound questions will find themselves rubbing shoulders with world-class competitors for the same answers. For the unprepared, having an exciting project scooped can threaten to derail the most promising of graduate student careers. So, what can we do about it?
Staying as well-informed as possible can certainly reduce the risk of being scooped. For starters, this means being up-to-date with the relevant literature associated with your project(s). At the same time, knowing what your closest scientific peers are busying themselves with can help you make crucial decisions regarding the direction of your own studies. Of course, this is a shared responsibility with your supervisor; he or she attends the bulk of the notable conferences and has spent years establishing a network of contacts. Furthermore, much of the information that may help you avoid head-to-head competition will not be found in publications or conferences. It will most often be spread through the grapevine wherever scientists convene – through publication or grant panels, invited seminars, and, perhaps most importantly, informal conversations at the pub. As a result, frequently discussing recent developments in your field together with your supervisor will go a long way towards helping you avoid the scoop.
Graduate students that are disillusioned with the competitive nature of academia tend to adopt insular research habits – rejecting open discussion and collaboration out of fear. Yet if everyone embraced this kind of “culture of paranoia” then academic research would progress at a snail’s pace. Worrying excessively about what other researchers are doing can lead to carelessness and anxiety. Developing scientists have to trust their own ideas and try to take them as far as possible during their graduate school years. “Don’t let the fear of being scooped impinge on the quality of your own science,” adds Dr. Jennifer Gommerman, who ensures that her students keep their priorities straight. Indeed, Gommerman is a proponent of an open attitude with regards to competition, one that served her and one of her graduate students well in the summer of 2012.
This scenario developed after a well-known scientist from Washington University asked Gommerman for a particular mouse strain from her lab. After several email exchanges, she realized that her collaborator was planning to use the strain for key experiments to finalize a manuscript that would in-part scoop one of her own student’s projects. Gommerman reacted by laying her cards on the table and being open about what her own student had completed and had in preparation. The colleague from Washington University agreed that a cooperative effort was best for all parties. As a result, both Gommerman and her student are co-authors on his recently-submitted manuscript. In this case, honesty and open communication proved to be the difference between a painful scoop and a fruitful collaboration, culminating in a partnership between the two labs which continues to this day. Synchronized submission is another example where correspondence between scientists attempting to publish similar papers leads to a mutually beneficial outcome. In this situation, both groups can target submission to the same high-profile journal simultaneously with greater confidence given that their manuscripts act as independent validations for one another. These examples suggest that the academic community tends to favour collaboration over competition, if possible.
In many cases, there will be tell-tale signs that you (or your supervisor) can pick up on in advance of a genuine scooping threat. If recognized promptly, these red flags can influence your subsequent research efforts and lead you in different directions. Yet, there remains the possibility that you could arrive at the lab one morning and – to your complete surprise – find one of your unpublished projects listed as a new entry on PubMed. How do you respond?
Pick up the next edition of IMMPress Magazine to find out!
Bohannon, John. “Psychologists launch a bare-all research initiative.” ScienceInsider 5 Mar 2013. Print.
“Don’t fear the scooper.” Scientopia 9 Oct 2012. 8 Mar 2013 (http://scientopia.org/blogs/neuropolarbear/2012/10/09/dont-fear-the-scooper/). Weblog entry.
Mole. “Stealing Thunder I.” J Cell Sci 117. Jun 2004: 3073-3074. Print.
Powell, Kendall. “Winning ways.” Nature 442. Aug 2006: 842-843. Print.
“The scoop.” This might be science 30 Apr 2010. 8 Mar 2013 (http://thismightbescience.blogspot.ca/2010/04/ladies-and-gentlemen-i-have-been.html). Weblog entry.
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