Scoop: some practical advice

So quantixed occasionally gets correspondence from other researchers asking for advice. A recent email came from someone who had been “scooped”. What should they do?

Before we get into this topic we have to define what we mean by being scooped.

In the most straightforward sense being scooped means that an article appeared online before you managed to get your article online.

You were working on something that someone else was also working on – maybe you knew about this or not and vice versa – but they got their work out before you did. They are the scooper and you are the scoopee.

There is another use of the term, primarily used in highly competitive fields, which define the act of scooping as the scooper have gained some unfair advantage to make the scoop. In the worst case, this can be done by receiving your article to review confidentially and then delaying your work while using your information to accelerate their own work (Ginsparg, 2016).

However it happens, the scoop can classified as an overscoop or an underscoop. An overscoop is where the scooper has much more data and a far more complete story. Maybe the scooper’s paper appears in high profile journal while the scoopee was planning on submitting to a less-selective journal.  Perhaps the scooper has the cell data, an animal model, the biochemical data and a crystal structure; while the scoopee had some nice data in cells and a bit of biochemistry. An underscoop is where a key observation that the scoopee was building into a full paper is partially revealed. The scoopee could have more data or better quality results and maybe the full mechanism, but the scooper’s paper gives away a key detail (Mole, 2004).

All of these definitions are different from the journalistic definition which simply means “the scoop” is the big story. What the science and journalistic term share is the belief that being second with a story is worthless. In science, being second and getting the details right is valuable and more weight should be given that it currently is. I think follow-up work is valued by the community, but it is fair to say that it is unlikely to receive the same billing and attention as the scooper’s paper.

How often does scooping actually happen?

To qualify as being scooped, you need to have a paper that you are preparing for publication when the other paper appears. If you are not at that point, someone else was just working on something similar and they’ve published a paper. They haven’t scooped you. This is easiest to take when you have just had an idea or have maybe done a few experiments and then you see a paper on the same thing. It must’ve been a good idea! The other paper has saved you some time! Great. Move on. The problem comes when you have invested a lot of time doing a whole bunch of work and then the other paper appears. This is very annoying, but to reiterate, you haven’t really been scooped if you weren’t actually at the point of preparing your work for publication.

As you might have gathered, I am not even sure scooping is a real thing. For sure the fear of being scooped is real. And there are instances of scooping happening. But most of the time the scoopee has not actually been scooped. And even then, the scoopee does not just abandon their work.

So what is the advice to someone who has discovered that they have been scooped?

Firstly, don’t panic! The scoopers paper is not going to go away and you have to deal with the fact you now have the follow up paper. It can be hard to change your mindset, but you must rewrite your paper to take their work into account. Going into denial mode and trying to publish your work as though the other paper doesn’t exist is a huge mistake.

Second, read their work carefully. I doubt that the scooper has left you with no room for manoeuvre. Even in the case of the overscoop, you probably still have something that the other paper doesn’t have that you can still salvage. There’s bound to be some details on which your work does not agree and this can feature in your paper. If it’s an underscoop, you have even less to worry about. There will be a way forward – you just need to identify it and move on.

The main message is that “being scooped” is not the end. You just need to figure out your way forward.

How do I stop it from happening to me?

Be original! It’s a truism that if you are working on something interesting, it’s likely that someone else is too. And if you work in a highly competitive area, there might be many groups working on the same thing and it is more likely that you will be scooped. Some questions are obvious next steps and it might be worth thinking twice about pursuing them. This is especially true if you come up with an idea based on a paper you’ve read. Work takes so long to appear that the lab who published that paper is likely far ahead of you.

Having your own niche gives the best protection. If you have carved out your own question you probably have the lead and will be associated with work in this area anyway. Other labs will back off. If you have a highly specialised method, again you can contribute in ways that others can’t and so your chances of being scooped decrease.

Have a backup plan. Do you have a side project which you can switch to if too much novelty is taken away from your main project? You can insulate yourself from scoop damage by not working on projects that are all-or-nothing. Horror stories about scooping in structural biology (which is all about “the big reveal”) are commonplace. Investing energy in alternative approaches or new assays as well as getting a structure might help here.

If you find out about competition, maybe from a poster or a talk at a meeting, you need to evaluate whether it is worth carrying on. If you can, talk to the other lab. Most labs do not want to compete and would prefer to collaborate or at least co-ordinate submission of manuscripts.

Use preprints! If you deposit your work on a preprint server, you get a DOI and a date stamp. You can prove that your work existed on that date and in what form. This is ultimate protection against being scooped. If someone else’s work appears online before you do this, then as I said above, you haven’t really been scooped. If work appears and you already have a DOI, well, then you haven’t been scooped either. Some journals see things this way. For example, EMBO J have a scoop protection policy that states that the preprint deposition timestamp is the date at which priority is assessed.

The post title is taken from “Scoop” by The Auctioneers. I have this track on an extended C86 3-Disc set.

2 thoughts on “Scoop: some practical advice

  1. Great post. It’s important to note what most people actually seem to mean by being scooped is that they won’t find a “high-impact” journal willing to publish their work.

    This is somewhat different from the notion of being unable to publish the work at all (or to graduate), which is unlikely given one can always find a journal that will publish the work and there are plenty of examples of similar work/conclusions appearing in good journals over a period of a few months. It is also not the same thing as being credited for ‘priority’ in a race for a critical discovery, something it should be emphasized that only ever affects a handful of scientists and, when it does (for things like Nobel prizes), is rarely adjudicated based only on a journal publication date.

    We’re thus left with the fact most scooping is all about where the paper lands in the journal pecking order. This is part of a bigger problem regarding incentives and rewards – particularly the currency of career progression – that does need to be addressed. But we should try to address this at source rather than condition already-stressed young scientists to live in fear of scooping.

    1. Thanks for the comment Richard. You are right that journal hierarchy is the elephant in the room. I wanted to avoid this point so it didn’t derail the advice in this post. I think the fear of being scooped is very real among scientists who are targeting the entire journal hierarchy. So I don’t think this is simply about high-impact or not. Also, it isn’t certain that the scooped paper will descend the journal hierarchy (although this is often the case).

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