The science scoop

I was just over reading this blog + comments at Nature Network which was discussing whether science could ever achieve the kind of coverage and interest that sports do. About halfway through the comments, I ran into this statement from Stephen Curry about why sports are more compelling than science:

The stakes are high and the difference between triumph and disaster is wafer-thin.

However, I would argue these same things are true of science, it’s just that both the stakes and the degree of ‘wafer-thinness’ are different.

One obvious way that triumph and disaster are quantified in science is in publications. So in this scenario, getting a significant paper published = triumph; getting scooped = disaster. But what does it mean to be scooped these days, with online release dates and the (sometimes extremely) different delays in publishing a paper at one journal vs. another? I remember a few times in grad school that I had an idea, and even before I had thought in the slightest about trying it out in the lab, I saw the same (or a very similar) result appear in the literature. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’ve got a paper coming out (i.e., already in press), but a competitor’s paper appears a few days or weeks before yours, does that mean your work was for nothing?

I guess getting scooped is mostly when you’re about ready to submit a paper (frantically finishing those last few controls or making bar graphs), but you haven’t actually submitted it (thus no ‘submitted on’ date to your name) and the competitor’s paper appears. However, on the longer timescale of science (i.e., weeks and months rather than 4 nicely packaged quarters), that seems pretty wafer-thin to me: After all, if your experiments had just gone a little more smoothly, or if the competitor’s revisions had slowed down because the first author was on vacation, etc., etc., you would have had concurrent papers.

So, enough rambling. The point of this post is to ask a few questions:

1. What was your closest call?

2. What defines getting scooped? Where does the distinction come between me-too science and studies that separately contribute even if the result is the same/very similar?

3. Is anyone willing to admit that they have submitted something before the paper was really ready just to get that earlier ‘submitted on’ date? More globally, is it possible to move away from this mindset? What kinds of changes would there need to be in the publishing world to make that happen?

Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)