ASCB Newsletter Nov 2013 - page 38

Scoping Out a Scoop
Dear Labby,
I am a postdoc and have developed a novel imaging method to look at specific gene loci in live cells.
My PI and I submitted our paper, but while it was under review a publication came out that described
the same idea but used it in different applications than the ones we investigated. Moreover, our
paper reports a variation of the method for use with fixed cells that has clinical applications. I asked
my PI what to do. He said we should let our submitted paper go through the review process, since
the applications of the method are so different even though the conception of the method itself is
the same. He added that we would, of course, cite and discuss this other paper in ours when it is
revised and accepted.
Even though these other authors did different things with the method, I felt like I had been
kicked in the solar plexus when I saw their paper. I put so much effort into this project! After I saw
their paper I almost wanted to withdraw mine and tear it up. My PI counseled me that this reaction
was understandable and advised me to stay the course. He is a trusted and wise mentor, but still I
wonder if he is right. I feel so down.
Dear Scooped,
Yours is a very moving scenario, but you need to recognize a number of things. The first and most
important is that you have a wonderful PI—his advice and empathy are totally right. Second, this sort
of experience will usually happen to every scientist sooner or later. In cases where there is a race to
get to a finish line, one lab is just faster or (more often) luckier. In your case, an idea you assumed
only you had thought of was thought of by someone else as well. This does not mean your idea was
not creative, inventive, or even brilliant. It just is a statistical happening: There are many other smart
people in your field, so there is a small but finite chance that the same idea will occur to more than
one person.
You need to deal with both the logistics and the emotional content of this experience. As to
logistics, let your paper go through review as your PI advised; there is certainly enough difference
between the two papers that you have no ethical obligation to withdraw yours. You will revise and
resubmit, or submit elsewhere, and in either case you must cite and discuss the other paper, as your
PI has advised. Your case is not the extreme case of a total scoop but is a “near-scoop,” and there is
some comfort in that.
The emotional axis is the more difficult to handle. It is natural that you feel down, as if a precious
idea has been “stolen.” Labby has had this happen more than once, and the sting is real. Balms
such as “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” are of no help, even if offered by well-meaning
colleagues. What does help is to take a Socratic world view of yourself and your science. This
means recognizing three things: 1) You had this idea. Someone else did too, but stop thinking
about that person. It is less important that you were unique in the universe than that you did have
this idea! Keep thinking like that. 2) Two innovators can be better than one. People in your field will
not downgrade your method because it was one of two publications, and in fact two publications
may have more than double the impact. 3) You have the opportunity to develop a new series of
applications of your method that will, as best as you can determine, diverge from those being
pursued by the other group. Within a short time, you will once again feel that you “own” this project
and the sting of this near-scoop will be a distant memory. Again, Labby speaks from personal
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