Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Notes from the Lab: Double Scoops

There were no ice-cream sundaes this week in the lab, only two scientific scoops. This happens when another research group publishes similar data/results before we are able to get ours out, and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In one case, a graduate student working with me sent around a paper that contains published data similar to the data she has collected but is still in the process of being written-up. However her experiments which were collected under slightly different conditions, have shown significantly different and in my opinion much more interesting behavior. The second scoop is a study that has been several years in the making for me—a theoretical result about deep Earth thermal behavior. Another research group has published results from a similar type of study. In some ways our end-results are similar and in other ways much different. 

            The rational response to this type of scientific deliciousness is to keep the nose to the grindstone, and to explore ways to get the papers out faster. Mostly this means a combination of working harder and smarter so that the papers can get written and submitted faster.  And this week I had to tell myself over and over what I tell my students and colleagues when they/we feel scooped: If it’s interesting science, there is room for multiple groups. Part of laying the foundation of science relies on multiple results. I can bring to the table broader context and better synthesis. 

           I have also been the scooper as well as the scoopee. In the interest of the golden rule, I occasionally call colleagues to give them a heads up that I am working on a data set that I suspect they might also have collected.  I have offered to pool data so it can be combined into one. In one case, I practically begged a colleague to take my data so they could combine it with theirs and write it up (I was bored with the project).

           I'm curious to hear about others' experiences with being scooped. Does it happen often to people? Does it bother people? Do people take action? Or carry on? Has anyone scooped another lab


  1. Being scooped is tricky to deal with, but you are completely right that multiple groups are an essential part of science. I try to view being scooped as a sign that I am working on interesting/important problems (and should publish faster next time).
    Maybe being scooped would be more bearable if it involved ice cream sundaes, although in my experience being scooped does lead to an increase in my ice cream consumption....
    Really enjoying the blog :)

  2. Thanks Lizzie--and yes I've noticed a definite increase in ice cream consumption this week! This just adds to my Broader Impact.

  3. Not quite the same, but related.. A group published a new paper this week in an area where we (grad student, myself and colleagues) have published in the recent past. Only they made no reference to our work, despite the very close overlap both in terms of location (field area) and topic. Perhaps this was just an oversight, but it is now the third paper from this group in quick succession with the same oversight. So perhaps they (and the reviewers) are genuinely unaware of our own work; or perhaps they just don't want to acknowledge our parallel work? Either way, it leaves me feeling upset for my former graduate student, and a little dismayed at the poor scholarship in this field. Perhaps it is time to send them a reprint?

  4. I've been on both sides of that situation too. I really don't like getting chided, but I do like it when the other research group takes an enthusiastic interest in my (overlapping) work. A positive reminder of an oversight usually results in better future citations, and occasionally an apology. Chiding is occasionally necessary if gentle education does not do the trick.