Friday, April 30, 2010

The Scoop

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been scooped.

Being "scooped" refers to another researcher simultaneously doing the same thing you're doing, usually without you knowing, then publishing the findings before you. In practical terms, this amounts to wasting months or years of your life. Two years, in my case.

In my particular case, there was no malevolence or trickery; it was simply a case of scientist inbreeding. Scientist inbreeding is a term I use for the following problem: because scientists specialize in single molecules in single pathways in single cells of single organisms, it is inevitable that the new scientists you train will have the same specialization and ideas as you. Now imagine those ideas are genes. Everyone's heard the "number one rule of genetics": spread the genes around! We don't have babies with our cousins because we're related, we might have the same versions of genes, we don't want babies with legs coming out of their heads. Right? Unfortunately, in science, once you are part of a family it is likely that you will stay in that family and make science babies, many of which will also stay in the family. One big, happy family of mentors, mentors that used to be mentees, and new mentees, all working on the same system. Ideally, our scientist inbreeding would result in lots of people attacking different facets of the same system, or taking advantage of the same system in different ways... but sometimes we are working on the exact same thing, without even realizing it, and then we have a baby with legs coming out of its head. Well, one of them does. The other one has a publication or two and the sense that they did not waste the past two years of their life.

So I am angry. I'm not angry at my boss, or the people that scooped me, I suppose I'm mostly angry at myself for not publishing sooner. I shouldn't have taken off so much time for Christmas last year, I should have been writing my Methods while I was collecting animals, I should have analyzed my data faster, I should have been thinking of new spins on my story instead of whatever I actually think about, I should have realized the urgency to get my story out there before someone else did. When I read the paper that this other group published, I see things I had not thought of and things I think they did wrong. But mostly, what I see is a story that was mine. I have spent two years developing this story and now it's told. Although it bothers me that my name isn't the one on the paper (of course!), what bothers me more is that I didn't get to do the story-telling. That story was mine!

I'm frantically regrouping. I know there are parts of the story that they didn't tell, that I can scrape up and piece together. I know I'm being (only slightly) melodramatic when I say I've wasted the past two years of my life because I can probably still get a publication out of this. And, of course, I only mean my "work life" when I say "life"; I have certainly not wasted years of my LIFE per se.

I'll post about the positives that have come out of being scooped next. Stay tuned...


  1. Thanks for sharing this story -- I look forward to part 2. You've inspired me to get my rear in gear on the paper I'm working on now. Also, the part that really hit home for me was "And, of course, I only mean my 'work life' when I say 'life'; I have certainly not wasted years of my LIFE per se." -- it is so easy to forget that they are not the same thing! Sigh.

  2. That is a horrible feeling, but its not all wasted. You can see their holes, you can add to the story, you can put a different spin on it. You just need to get over the anger/frustration/the AACCKK!!!!! of it all, which is the hard part isn't it?

    good luck!

  3. Sorry, but you got what you deserved.

    It is absolutely pathetic that you think this is some kind of general truism of the biosciences:

    Scientist inbreeding is a term I use for the following problem: because scientists specialize in single molecules in single pathways in single cells of single organisms, it is inevitable that the new scientists you train will have the same specialization and ideas as you.

    It is a load of fucking horseshit that "scientists specialize in single molecules in single pathways in single cells of single organisms". Sure, some do: the ones who are neither smart nor creative enough to do anything other than trod the fruitless well-worn path delineated by what they have observed their mentors do.

    But smarter and more creative bioscientists realize that this kind of approach to understanding biology is pretty much reaching a fucking dead end. If you are stupid and boring enough to build your scientific career around "specializ[ing] in single molecules in single pathways in single cells of single organisms", then as far as I'm concerned, you get what you fucking deserve. We are now in an era where we need to transcend this kind of ignorant mickey-mouse reductionistic thinking, and begin the much more exciting and creative process of integrating hard-won molecular and genetic understanding developed over the last 40 years into appropriate tissue, organ, and organismic levels of physiological analysis.

  4. Geez CPP, that's a little harsh on someone who is a graduate student. This Scientist, you should, however, be a little angry with your advisor. The advisor's job is to be aware of what is going on in the field by networking and going to conferences, and being aware enough of what his/her own students are doing to see this situation coming.

  5. Well it looks like the CPP above has some issues....

    What i wanted to say is that I, too, was scooped - not by someone in my own lab, but in a cometitors lab in a different country. I said to my PhD supervisor frequently "OK, we've finished that part - let's publish" and he said no, contiue the research and then we'll publish the entire study as a whole story, hopefully in Nature or Embo - only for the various parts to be individually published down the years by our competitor. Eventually, once the PhD was completed, we couldn't publich at all because "it's all already been published". So my adivce - when you know you have competitors, publish as soon as you can, and don't listen to your supervisor.

  6. Getting scooped happens, even to the best of us. I don't think it's always a result of inbreeding; sometimes it's just dumb luck. But if this was someone your boss knew well, then I do think s/he should have been more in tune with what was going on out there. If not, then all you can do is decide whether or not you did the best you could, figure out if you'd do anything different in the future, and move on. Also, like ScientistMother said, no published story is told perfectly, and you likely know this story better than anybody else reading their paper. Make the story better and stronger, then publish your own version...preferably rather soon. ;)

  7. Comrade PhysioProf:

    That was rude and arrogant and completely uncalled for. What gives you the right to chastise this scientist in particular when you really know nothing about them other than one line in a blog that you read. However, that is your opinion and you are certainly entitled to it.

    I have one too: You're an asshole.

  8. I got scooped too. It was horrible. Everything I had done was replicated in this paper from Japan who had a whole team working on my project were I was just one. I rebounded and switched directions and came out just fine. I only "lost" one year of time so I suppose it could have been worse.

    I agree with Paul Nelson who says to just publish when you have the data and do not wait for a top-tier journal. Chances are you will be rejected anyways (and for no good reason to boot), so just get it out there and scoop all the other bastards.

  9. Physioprof is a blowhard. Some molecules are just more important than others and the research deserves redundancy. Competition is a good thing and working in a competitive field is anything but stupid or boring. I work in one of those competitive fields and I've been scooped, more than once. The only thing you can do is one up em the next time... or you can go investigate the underside of some obscure rock with physioprof.

  10. There's also the technique of my PI. He seems to know what everyone is doing. If someone is working on the same gene as one of us, he negotiates for a collaboration. With intelligent PIs this usually results in a faster and better paper and nobody gets left out.

  11. Ouch. It hurts to get scooped, but that is always a possibility if you are doing interesting, relevant science.

    When I was a postdoc, a few months before I was ready to start writing up, an article came out in Nature/Science that detailed pretty much the same experiment I was working on (some details were different). I was pretty bummed at first, but after a careful reread of the article, I could see how I could write mine as a complementary piece of science. I got my paper accepted to a major field-specific journal, and it has been fairly well-cited (40+ cites, which is pretty decent for the field.

    It will never be the same as being FIRST!, but you will get your chance to tell your story.