An example of a researcher being 'scooped' as a result of working openly?

+15 votes
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asked Aug 4, 2015 in Open Science by tomp (215 points)

A reason that researchers sometimes give for not working in the open is the fear of having a publication 'scooped' by a competing researcher. Is there a clear, verifiable example where scooping has happened as a result of work being shared informally on the web prior to formal publication?

By being scooped, I am thinking of a situation where Researcher 1 has made progress on a project openly, but has not yet formally published her or his findings. Researcher 2 subsequently takes the informally shared work as a basis for a publication, to the detriment of Researcher 1.



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commented Aug 18, 2015 by tomp (215 points)
Good question! Very common to hear people talking about getting scooped, but not easy to define. Will give it a try...

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by HDE 226868 (320 points)
How would you define a "scoop"?

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6 Answers

+6 votes
answered Aug 4, 2015 by jojo (285 points)

This is not actually an answer to your question but:

I would argue that the sooner your work is publicly available, the smaller the chances of your work being 'scooped' by someone else.

At least in physics (maybe other domains too) people often 'publish' a first version on arxiv just to get it out and thus be capable to claim authorship. Then they try to submit it in a peer-reviewed paper.

Presumably it is during the in submission phase were work can be scooped by others: Imagine a reviewer who gets your manuscript and that has a colleague working on the same thing you are. If he is honest, he will not share your work with his colleague, if he is not so honest we will share your work and if he want to help out his colleague he will ask you to do some improvements on your paper just to delay the process.

However, if you post your scientific work in some shaggy blog somewhere I can imagine that your work can be scooped. But the better sites like arxiv, biorxiv or vixra are established, the easier it is to make scientific work publicly available without the risk of someone scooping you.

Note, as HDE 226868 pointed out, that vixra has rather 'liberal' criteria for submission, leading to not the best reputation when it comes to quality of the papers you can find there. It serves, nevertheless, the purpose of getting a paper published.



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commented Aug 18, 2015 by jojo (285 points)
@HDE226868: Added your concerns about vixra. Thanks for pointing this out!

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by HDE 226868 (320 points)
@jojo Pretty much.

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by HDE 226868 (320 points)
@jojo Thanks for putting that in.

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by jojo (285 points)
@HDE226868 I see. vixra will work if you just need to get your paper out (say to claim authorship on something) but it's probably not where you want your paper to end up.

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by HDE 226868 (320 points)
@jojo The standards are extremely low, which means that many researchers distrust it and papers submitted to it. A case in point is [this](http://vixra.org/pdf/1508.0007v1.pdf).

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by ph0t0nix (45 points)
For biology and life sciences there is the BioRxiv: http://www.biorxiv.org/. However, it's not so much a common practice (yet) as arXiv is for physicists.

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by HDE 226868 (320 points)
Lumping in vixra with the other two is not a good idea - at least, describing it as a "better site" is not true. They take virtually anything.

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commented Aug 18, 2015 by jojo (285 points)
@HDE226868 I have not heard anything bad from vixra but I never used it myself either. Why would would you not recommend it?

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+6 votes
answered Aug 8, 2015 by Savage Henry (105 points)

This does not constitute strong evidence, but one anecdotal example of this is mentioned in an @GallantLab tweet. (Gallant Lab is the Computational & Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UC Berkeley run by Jack Gallant.):

"sigh. A paper that we've been working on for 1.5 years was just scooped by another lab that re-analyzed open data from my lab. Ah well..."

Notably, Gallant seems to take the scooping in stride, noting in the next tweet:

"Just to be clear, the scoopers did nothing wrong! They cited our data & papers. They asked a simpler question for which the old data was OK."



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+5 votes
answered Aug 7, 2015 by Ian Gent (50 points)

The Kuiper belt object Haumea was perhaps discovered by a second group through looking at observation logs - it was very controversial.

The controversy has a wikipedia article



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commented Aug 18, 2015 by Daniel Mietchen (1,145 points)
First time I hear about this. Seems like a great example of what the question was aimed at. Not clear cut, but useful to discuss the issue of scooping in concrete terms.

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+3 votes
answered Aug 5, 2015 by Scott Edmunds (30 points)

I agree with the points raised about pre-prints preventing scooping by allowing priority to be established. If others then use this work without attributing the original source then they have broken scientific/cultural norms and have committed research misconduct. The same goes with data publication and citation - early dissemination of data with citable DOIs to allow for attribution of its use before a formal paper has been published. Like pre-prints, the majority of journals do not see this as prior publication (see the survey of publishers on this by F1000). A useful example of this was the genomic data from the deadly German E. coli outbreak that killed over 50 people in summer 2011. There were arguments over who sequenced it first, but one group [COI declaration: I was involved in data release from BGI] released their data first via twitter (CC0 with DOIs to make it citable) and got the credit for doing this (see this blog posting for more on the crowdsourcing efforts this enabled). Not only did this not prevent the eventual formal publication in a journal (NEJM), the group that didn't release their data due to what they said was competition to publish were criticised by some for doing this.



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+3 votes
answered Aug 10, 2015 by Rex Kerr (95 points)

Most answers, and maybe the question, don't address how "scooping" normally happens. It isn't that group 2 simply takes group 1's results and publishes them. It's that group 2 realizes from group 1's partial results that there's some big finding to be had--or already made and just needing enough confirmation--and can take the already-gleaned insight to drive a frenzy of their own experiments (which in some cases are exactly the same as experiments being done by group 1).

Group 2, after having swooped in at the end to finish up really fast, then publishes without reference to how they realized these were the right experiments to do, and without any citation to group 1 since they're still finishing up.

Now, if all research were totally open, this maneuver would no longer work, since you'd be able to track that key ideas 1-5 were out there before group 2 jumped in with idea 6 that crossed over the threshold needed for a good publication. Even if group 2 got the good publication, it'd be really obvious that 80% of the valuable work was actually done by group 1.

But if only some research is totally open, then the closed guys can just feign ignorance about "scooping" the other group. They can probably rightly claim to have been working on the same problem for a long time, and that they weren't really doing the right experiments or thinking about the problem the right way is completely obscured.

Now, although I haven't witnessed this kind of scooping with open data, I have witnessed it (at various distances) on at least four occasions with data that was not fully open but openly shared in various contexts (meetings, etc.). And though most people intimately familiar with the details agreed that it happened, group 2 was the one with the better publication record. I think all the group 1s ended up okay w.r.t. funding and tenure and so on, but it was to their detriment.

So the concern seems potentially valid, at least until hiring and tenure and grant committees will look more favorably on a Figshare etc. or GitHub repository containing documentation of discoveries than on a high-profile publication months later that contain mostly those same discoveries.



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commented Aug 18, 2015 by Ian Gent (50 points)
I agree this is the kind of scooping that is relatively common. It's obvious that open research can make this worse (since it's easy to see what other people are doing.) I think it's a big potential problem, because as in @Rex-Kerr's hypothetical example, maybe idea 6 really is important and also the group has been working on it for a long time. Very hard to say definitively that they got ideas 1-5 from the other group, and if "caught" the defence might be simply adding a citation to the open notebook, for which in the long run group 1 gets little credit.

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+2 votes
answered Aug 4, 2015 by Guido Jorg (90 points)

This is not a complete answer. But the point of systematic open science in the first publishing is, among other things, to prevent scooping, yes?

Consider that scooping (defined by this sentence implicitly) is possible iff one publication is obscure or informal and another published later without crediting the earlier source they were aware of is much less obscure and claims the result. A systematic if informal system like arXiv prevents scooping actually, as you would imagine. Even MathOverflow posts have been cited in papers, not scooped.

I would have difficulty finding an example of scooping in internet publication because of this reason. It's easily discovered and I don't think that people who participate in open science do it because it undercuts the goodwill foundation of goodwill (an intangible asset that goes on a balance sheet and can be in other circumstances a large part of the value of an enterprise) of open publication and easy mutually beneficial discussion.

Allegations of scooping arose mostly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when most print publications, even well known ones, were difficult to obtain or check. Likely remarks about such cases are where the fears of being scooped originate.



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