The fear of getting scooped & the lack of communication within science

The fear of getting scooped really points to a larger issue within academia. Science is based upon the ability to test hypotheses and falsify data, which is why the open sharing of knowledge is so important. But fears about getting scooped lead to less open communication about methods and results. You don’t want to blab your results to any random person, or reveal too much preliminary data during a talk at a conference. You run the risk of someone running off with that idea and getting it done before you.

And because everyone holds their cards close to their chest, you often don’t know who’s working on similar research. Frequently the motivation to publish is the fear of getting scooped by a research group you didn’t expect. When new scientific papers are published, I always read through the titles in the Table of Content with some trepidation, hoping no one hits too close to my project. That would mean having to shift or completely revamp the focus of your research, which is one of the causes of people staying in grad school longer than expected.

It’s getting to the point where sometimes even published results aren’t immediately accessable to other scientists. Newly published genomes are often embargoed for a year so the lab that produced the data has more time to mine it. There’s a lot of debate over whether this is acceptable. On one hand, the lab in question often spent a lot of time, money, and effort sequencing that genome, and it seems unfair for someone else to swoop in and pick off the low hanging fruit questions. On the other hand, having that genome available is incredibly important so other scientists can judge its quality in order to more accurately interpret the results of a published paper, or to use it in their own research. What good is it to come up with all this knowledge about the universe if no one else is allowed to know about it?

I don’t have a solution for this problem with academic culture, but it’s something that gets brought up a lot. How do you feel about embargoes on genomes and other scientific information? For those of you who do research, have you had problems getting scooped?

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  1. Lisa says

    I don’t think competition within the academic community is a bad thing, and the risk of being scooped is part of that.

  2. says

    As someone who has done computational work with publicly available genomes, I’m of two minds. On the one hand, I’m very sympathetic to those who are worried about being scooped. Since I’ve done my research as an undergrad and then been working on getting it published in my free time since then while I work and prepare to apply to grad school, it would be very easy to be scooped if anyone had the ideas my advisor and I have had and the expertise and time to do the analyses.

    On the other hand, embargoes stymie research, including the kind I’ve been doing. For example, for a long time the neanderthal nuclear genome was essentially unavailable for analysis by labs not connected to the project, and it still isn’t on GenBank. This made my own analyses weaker than they would have been if I’d had access to the data.

    So yeah. I think we’re stuck between goblins and wolves here. I think the dilemma also creates the problem of reducing the amount of collaboration that gets done. Since we’re so hesitant to share what we’re doing unless we’re working with novel data on non-model species, two labs might be doing highly complementary work and duplicating some of the background work and not notice it until the papers come out.

  3. Siobhan says

    I’m not in academe. I don’t do research. I’m a code monkey for a state agency and I manage databases and web applications. I did work for four years in the early 90s at a private university, as an executive assistant to the dean of the faculty. That’s the extent of my involvement, so I’m mostly on the outside (just giving the context in which I’m posting this).

    When I see situations outlined like the research/publish/scooping one, it always makes me wonder if the real problem is that people are making assumptions about what they HAVE to do and how they have to do it.

    You say that if someone publishes something that’s too much like your research, then you have to change the entire basis of your graduate work. I think to myself “Why?”. Isn’t the whole freekin’ point of science that you test hypotheses over and over so you get reproducible results? Why should it matter if someone else is doing research against a hypothesis similar to yours? Wouldn’t the results make both of your outcomes stronger, or if they don’t support each other, lead to more research that questions why the differences? Isn’t that the whole POINT of research?

    I know, I know, the university expects that you’re going to do ORIGINAL work. They want FRESH ideas for your graduate work. That just pushes the question back but the question still remains: WHY do they expect that? What is the underlying assumption of this expectation that drives the entire process.

    What would be so bad if they didn’t have this expectation? Or maybe some modification of it, where, if someone happens to publish something very like your research within a couple of years of your work, then it doesn’t count against you. Or something like that. Yes, I know progress and NEW ideas need to be had, and that MOST new ideas come from younger minds. I get that. But at the cost of what? EVERYONE, not just grad students, suffers because of artificially imposed limits on research.

    Is it also in part because people want THEIR name on this “big discovery”? That if someone publishes something similar, then they risk being overshadowed or unnoticed or accused of being derivative? But why does that matter so much? It’s a social construct. It matters because people perpetuate the idea that it matters. Isn’t it far more important to advance research and science and technology and all of that for the sake of humankind than it is to get your own name in a journal?

    I point back at academe for this. The whole attitude of “publish or perish”. That entire academic careers depend on people publishing regularly, which means THEIR name has to be on it for them to get local credit to keep their job (and not just that, how many other names are on there matter, too, and how often they publish, and how “new” their material is, I used to take minutes at Promotion and Tenture committee meetings, I could not BELIEVE how persnickety some of the professors were about publishing EVERY year or so). I think maybe that drives a lot of this, too. Because of some archaic method of awarding tenure, ALL research, EVERYwhere suffers. Because some people want job security, we have delays in medical advancements that could save lives, or agricultural advances, etc.

    Because some fusty old professors have been doing it that way for hundreds of years (or however long the current system has been growing). All of this leads to a totally paranoid environment for people who are trying to do purely intellectual work but who are being made slaves to academic or corporate research culture.

  4. ibbica says

    @hyperdeath: …or so incredibly labour- and time-intensive that no-one in their right mind would even try :P

    I’ve done long-term field research… by which I mean “outdoors in actual fields“. Oh, and tundra-desert. And northern forests. In conditions like -20’C weather, blackfly season, areas where the bears don’t know to be afraid of people… The cutthroat competition in a-certain-area-of-biology-that-shall-remain-nameless came as an abrupt shock after the camaraderie I found among field biologists ;)

    Now of course I’m on a two-week deadline to get my latest research submitted before the abstract goes public, just so I don’t get ‘scooped’. Blech. I’d rather be worrying about the bears.

  5. says

    As someone who (literally) ran away with the circus after high school, and is now back in college to “run away with the scientists,” I’m inclined to take the attitude of the performers I’ve admired most: Anyone who has to steal ideas from me can’t keep up with me anyway.

    I know the dynamics are different in academia, and I’m not really into that part of it yet, so I might change my mind when I get there, but for now it seems to me that it would be better to not just let everybody know what you’re working on, but make sure everybody knows what you’re working on. Then if someone uses your idea without giving you credit, everyone will know, think less of them for it, and their future will be affected by that. (If you want to go for extra snark, you can thank them in your paper for making use of your preliminary work.) I don’t expect that would fix the problem entirely, but if that were to become the standard I think it would be an improvement.

  6. says

    It is definitely bad form to publish scientific research without enough information to replicate the results, such as by withholding the genome. It undermines the whole scientific method and allows erroneous studies to persist uncontested for a long time.

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