Getting scooped really can happen to scientists! (
Getting scooped really can happen to scientists!   (


Being a researcher is an adventure! You will never hear about experiments that don’t work, great results that cannot be duplicated, good manuscripts or patent applications that keep getting rejected, problems with jealous bosses, or, not being able to get adequate lab space! This article discusses one situation involving research publications that is always lurking around and ready to pounce on innocent hard-working professional researchers.

Publication of research reports in science journals!

All scientists want to be the first to report some new research discovery or new concept. Researchers at all levels always try to avoid getting scooped. This term is derived from the competition between daily newspapers, whose reporters always vigorously seek to be the very first to notify the public about something alarming, scandalous, or newsworthy.  For scientists, getting scooped means that some scientist publishes a research result just before the same new finding is independently published by another scientist; the first to publish scoops the second.

This situation of getting scooped typically occurs in science because it often is impossible to know whether some other scientist is working on the same research question (i.e., there is no database listing what global research studies are in progress). The act of scooping almost never is done on purpose, but rather simply happens as a coincidence. When 2 very similar research reports appear, both authors are very surprised to learn about this duplication. The authors of the report published first are delighted when a second scientist soon verifies their findings; such confirmation more usually takes months or years to appear in print, but in the case of scooping, the second report appears within a few days or weeks after the first report. Scientists authoring the second publication inevitably get upset!  Some journal editors receiving 2 manuscripts that are very similar will publish the pair side by side in one issue; in such cases, both authors equally get full credit for making a discovery.

This situation of being outrun in the race to publish first means that all research scientists are in a hurry to publish their research findings so as to decrease the chance of getting scooped. Those researchers working on very hot topics are especially paranoid about getting scooped. While rushing into print or publishing short limited aspects of a long study now is commonplace, that tactic can have its own negative consequence (i.e., decreased quality).

Scientists working at industrial labs face very analogous issues with obtaining patents.  Until a patent application is finally approved, everything must be kept totally secret in order to preclude simultaneous applications submitted by research groups in other companies. Getting the first patent is desired by everyone’s ego, and is deemed totally essential by their employer!

Can scoopage be avoided?

Getting scooped is a risk that really cannot be prevented! However, there is a common way to try to avoid it. This is done by publishing abstracts at the annual meetings of science societies. Abstracts are only one paragraph long and report only some limited portion of experimental results and preliminary conclusions. Nevertheless, publication of abstracts in a science journal usefully serves to establish priority. Of course, a more definitive way to avoid the problem of getting scooped is simply to publish first.

What are the consequences of getting scooped?

Getting scooped is unpleasant since that automatically reduces the credit given to the author-scientist issuing the second publication. With further research work, both authors try to rapidly turn out more publications, so as to raise their identification for being the leader with studying that research topic. The consequences of getting scooped can be much more severe for graduate students than for other scientists; if their thesis project is scooped, it is no longer new to science, and often then cannot be approved for an advanced degree without much additional research.

One of my fellow graduate students was finishing several years of research work on his thesis project. Upon completing the preparation of illustrations for a long manuscript to be submitted a few days later to the Journal of Cell Biology, the latest issue of this monthly journal arrived and he was truly shocked to see that there was a big article by a famous professor on the East Coast that was almost duplicating his own manuscript! Even some of the figures were nearly identical! Neither researcher knew that the other was working on exactly the same topic, and this coincidence was simply some very bad luck for my friend. Since he was a very hard worker, he fortunately also had a second major aspect in his thesis research, and so was able to successfully use those other results to rewrite and compose a doctoral thesis different from his original plans.

Concluding remarks!

Yes, some scientists really do get scooped! One of the hazards of working in scientific research is that nobody knows whether others are researching on the same topic until abstracts or full publications appear. The presently increasing number of research scientists and increasing pressure from the current research grant system undoubtedly raise the incidence of getting scooped!