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Getting scooped…

14 November 2007 13 Comments

I have been waiting to write this post for a while. The biggest concern expressed when people consider taking on an Open Notebook Science approach is that of being ‘scooped’. I wanted to talk about this potential risk using a personal example where my group was scooped but I didn’t want to talk about someone else’s published paper until the paper on our work was available for people to compare. Our paper has just gone live at PLoS ONE so you will be able to compare the two sets of results.

Attaching proteins in a site selective manner to solid supports is a challenging problem. A general approach to attaching proteins to resin beads or planar surfaces while retaining function would have applications in chemical catalysis, analytical devices, and the generation of protein microarrays.

We established in my laboratory that the Sortase enzyme of S. aureus was an effective way of attaching functional proteins to solid supports in about March 2006. This was before I started taking up ONS and as the student is finishing up the project has not been moved onto an ONS basis so the data was not made available when we had it. We delayed publishing this as we attempted to generate a ‘pretty picture’ in which we would create the Southampton University logo in fluorescent protein on a glass surface. The idea of this was to make it more likely that we would get the paper into a higher ranked journal but ultimately we were unsuccessful.

In March 2007 we were scooped by a paper in Bioconjugate Chemistry (1). This paper, amongst other things, included an experiment that was very similar to the core experiment in our data (2). I should emphasise that there is absolutely no suggestion that this group ‘stole’ our data. They were working independently and were probably doing their experiments at about the same time as we did ours.

The first point here is that in the vast majority of cases being scooped is not about theft but about the fact that a good idea is an idea that is likely to occur to more than one person. It is essentially about not being first to get to publication. I can argue that I had the idea some years ago – but we didn’t get on to the work until 2006 and we’ve only just managed to get it published.

The second point is that our work is clearly different enough from Parthasarathy et al to be published. This is often the case. Indeed we have recently been scooped again on a different aspect of this project (3) but I expect we will still be able to publish as our data is again complementary to that reported.

So, from the perspective of traditional publication we were scooped because we didn’t publish fast enough. We can’t claim any precedence because we weren’t taking an ONS approach that would support this claim. But let us consider what would have happened if we had taken an ONS approach. I think there are a series of possible outcomes;

  1. It is possible, or even likely, that the other group may not have noticed our results at all. Under these circumstances we would at least be able to claim precedence.
  2. The other group may have seen our results and been spurred into more rapid publication. Again we would have been able to claim precedence but also there would be a record of the visit. I suspect this is the most common route to being scooped. In most cases results are not ‘copied’ from e.g. conference presentations but much more often the fact that someone is close to publication spurs another group to get their work published first.
  3. The most positive outcome is that, having seen we had some similar results, the other group may have got in contact and we could have put the results together to make a better paper.

Outcome 3) may seem unlikely but it really is the best outcome for everyone. Pathasarathy et al published in Bioconjugate Chemistry and we will publish in PLoS ONE after chasing around a number of other journals. If we had combined the results and, possibly more importantly, the resources to hand we probably could have put together a much better paper. This could possibly have gone to a significantly higher ranked journal. Apart from possible arguments over first and corresponding authorship everyone would have been better off.

This is the promise of being open as well as practising Open Notebook Science. By cooperating we can do a lot better. Being open has its risks but equally there are significant potential benefits including doing better science, better publications, and better career prospects as a result.

But let us now put the shoe on the other foot. What if the other group had made their data available? Would I have rushed out our paper to prevent them getting in first? It is one thing to advocate openness but would I really have gotten in touch with them myself? The answer is that 12 months ago I probably wouldn’t have got in contact. I would have pushed the student to work 24 hours a day and got our own paper out as fast as possible with whatever data we had to hand. I probably would not have contacted the other group. And we may have cut corners to get the data together, missed out controls that we know would work but didn’t have time to do and glossed over any possible issues.

But today, faced with the same dilemma I would get in touch with them and propose combining our data. Why the change? Partly because I have spent the past 12 months considering the issues around being open. But a strong contributor is that if I didn’t I would be exposing myself to criticism as a hypocrite. I have come to think that one of the real benefits of ‘being open’ is that being exposed means you hold yourself to higher standards precisely because being out in the open means that people have the evidence to judge you on.

I find that as I do my experiments and record them I take more care, I describe them more clearly, and I take more care to preserve and index the data properly. More generally I feel more inclined to share my ideas and preliminary results with others. And part of this is because I am aware that double standards will be obvious to anyone who is looking. Standards and discipline in maintaining them make for better science and for better people. Anyone who is honest with themselves knows that sometimes, somewhere, there is a temptation to cut corners. We all need help in maintaining discipline and being open is a very effective way of doing it.

It may sound a bit over the top but I actually feel like a better person for taking this approach. So for all the sceptics out there, and particularly for those academics with blood pressure issues, I recommend you try throwing the doors open. The fresh air is a bit bracing but it will do you the world of good.

  1. Parthasarathy R, Subramanian S, Boder ET (2007) Sortase A as a novel molecular “stapler” for sequence-specific protein conjugation. Bioconjug Chem 18:469-76
  2. Chan L, Cross HF, She JK, Cavalli G, Martins HFP, Neylon C (2007) Covalent attachment of proteins to solid supports and surfaces via Sortase-mediated ligation, PLoS ONE 2(11): e1164 doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001164
  3. Popp et al., (2007) Sortagging: a versatile method for protein labelling. Nat Chem Biol Sep 23 (Epub ahead of print)

  • I am very happy that you took the time to write this!

    Every point you make is well thought out and consistent with my experience. Doing ONS really does have some interesting psychological consequences.

  • I am very happy that you took the time to write this!

    Every point you make is well thought out and consistent with my experience. Doing ONS really does have some interesting psychological consequences.

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  • Yep, I think Neil S puts in well in his post ‘a kinder, gentler, and more productive’ world.

    I was thinking about this the other day. I wonder if it would be possible to quantify how much government research funding is wasted because it is either replication of what someone else is doing or, perhaps more subtly, is not carried out in a coordinated way with what others are doing and is therefore less efficient.

  • Yep, I think Neil S puts in well in his post ‘a kinder, gentler, and more productive’ world.

    I was thinking about this the other day. I wonder if it would be possible to quantify how much government research funding is wasted because it is either replication of what someone else is doing or, perhaps more subtly, is not carried out in a coordinated way with what others are doing and is therefore less efficient.

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  • I think that if it were possible to quantify the redundant research being done, it’s be astronomical. Specially if we think about it on a global scale.
    Loved the post!

  • I think that if it were possible to quantify the redundant research being done, it’s be astronomical. Specially if we think about it on a global scale.
    Loved the post!

  • I could not agree more. It should lead to more efficient use of resources and hopefully a lot less personal problems. I have seen many of my friends getting scooped during the PhD and every time I felt that this was so unnecessary. This has been my main driving force to promote the concept whenever I can. Some people have argued with me that competition keeps people productive but I think that can still compete on smaller packages of content that don’t take 2/3 years of work from someone.

  • I could not agree more. It should lead to more efficient use of resources and hopefully a lot less personal problems. I have seen many of my friends getting scooped during the PhD and every time I felt that this was so unnecessary. This has been my main driving force to promote the concept whenever I can. Some people have argued with me that competition keeps people productive but I think that can still compete on smaller packages of content that don’t take 2/3 years of work from someone.

  • I think there is a place for some friendly competition and even a bit of duplication. After repeatability is a cornerstone of empirical science. But the sheer waste of money that goes into what are essentially games of personal one upmanship I suspect is huge.

    The other problem is that it is very difficult for younger people or people without an august sponsor to get ahead. Collaboration is generally seen as a weakness (i.e. its not all your own work) and competing with the top people in any given field is a very high risk strategy (which nonetheless nearly every new academic takes as far as they are able to). So people are wasted as well which in a sense is even worse than the money.

  • I think there is a place for some friendly competition and even a bit of duplication. After repeatability is a cornerstone of empirical science. But the sheer waste of money that goes into what are essentially games of personal one upmanship I suspect is huge.

    The other problem is that it is very difficult for younger people or people without an august sponsor to get ahead. Collaboration is generally seen as a weakness (i.e. its not all your own work) and competing with the top people in any given field is a very high risk strategy (which nonetheless nearly every new academic takes as far as they are able to). So people are wasted as well which in a sense is even worse than the money.

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