Posted by: Jeremy Fox | December 7, 2011

On getting scooped in ecology

One of the things I like about being an ecologist is that I rarely have to worry about being scooped. Only once have I ever felt like I’d been beaten to a result, and in retrospect I really wasn’t.* Only two other times have I ever been worried I might be beaten to a result, and in retrospect I needn’t have worried one of those times.** There are so many questions one can ask in ecology, in so many different systems, using so many different approaches, that only rarely is the first study to address a question also considered the last word. And I only know of one instance in which an ecological or evolutionary colleague was scooped.

Although I don’t know much about what goes on in fields outside my own, clearly in many of them the risk of being scooped is very real. I went to college with a guy who went on to do a physics PhD in a lab that was basically racing some other labs to be the first to create a particular state of matter (some sort of Bose-Einstein condensate, I think), with the winner likely to get a Nobel Prize. This friend of mine said the pressure really wore him down; he ended up going into science policy to get away from it.

Which isn’t to say that getting scooped is impossible in ecology. That’s why I often check with my fellow protist microcosmologists before running a new experiment–I want to make sure they’re not already doing something similar.

I was interested to see that the UC Davis Center for Science and Innovation Studies recently ran a panel discussion on getting scooped in science, with evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen as one of the panelists. Is there more concern about getting scooped in ecology and evolution than I’ve realized? Is concern increasing? The focus on the panel seemed to be on “getting scooped” in the context of data sharing, which isn’t something that had ever really occurred to me. People who collect data are understandably concerned with receiving appropriate credit when others use that data. But worrying about not being credited isn’t the same as worrying about being scooped, is it? For instance, if someone uses your data in a meta-analysis, whether they properly credit you or not, how is that scooping you? By definition, you couldn’t have done the meta-analysis yourself, using just your own data. Am I missing something here?

Another question discussed by the panel was pre-publication sharing of ideas and results. It’s obvious why one might worry that such sharing would lead to getting scooped. That’s why the ideas I share on the Oikos blog, such as my “free idea for a provocative review paper” posts (see here, here, and here), are mostly those which I’m happy for others to pick up and run with, because realistically I know I’ll never have time to pursue these ideas myself.

Have you ever been scooped? Worried about it? (why?) Looking forward to your comments.

*Steiner (2001) was a similar experiment to the experiment that eventually became Fox (2007 Oikos). But the experiments were conducted in different systems, and the results were somewhat different. So in practice Steiner (2001) didn’t reduce the perceived novelty of my experiment, which in any case I ended up using to address an entirely different question after the original version was rejected a couple of times.

**After my first Price equation paper was externally reviewed and declined by Nature, I was irrationally worried that the idea was now “out there” and one of the referees might publish it.


  1. The funny things is, while results and ideas in in ecology and evolution are probably unlikely to be scooped or pilfered, researchers in these fields seem inordinately concerned with that possibility.

    The comparison between physics and biology you mention is particularly illuminating. High-energy physics is where such concerns would be more warranted, yet that is the field which created, out of long tradition of pre-publication sharing of manuscripts among colleagues. Biologists to date have been reluctant to consider using arXiv, and one of the more common comments regarding Peerage of Science (where registered scientists can engage manuscripts as reviewers) is “I worry my results will be pilfered”.

    I wonder why this is so? Is it the prevalence of the USI* -virus in our field, or the uncomfortable understanding of (human) nature that comes with studying evolution and behavioural ecology?

    *USI=Unwarranted Self-Importance

  2. Good question, to which I don’t have an answer. I tend to think of preprint servers like arXiv as both creating the opportunity for people to rip one another off, and making sure that doesn’t happen. After all, if you put something on arXiv, and someone else tries to steal that idea and publish it in a peer-reviewed journal, you can just point to your arXiv preprint and claim priority.

    I’m a little circumspect when it comes to putting ideas on the Oikos blog, because that’s a more informal venue than arXiv and I’m typically putting out ideas that aren’t fully developed. So I don’t know that I could count on being able to claim priority or prevent any rivals from “stealing” my ideas and turning them into peer-reviewed papers by citing “prior publication” in a blog post.

    An interesting case that’s arisen is that, by posting about the “zombie idea” of the IDH and responding to comments on those posts, I’ve developed what I think are a couple of publishable ideas. Not sure what I would do if someone were to try to scoop me. Someone certainly could–pretty much everything you’d need to do it is already up on the blog. And like I said, I’m not sure a blog post is the sort of thing that would let me claim priority. But fortunately, I don’t think that’s likely to happen.

  3. […] “scooped” by other researchers (although, regarding that last point, read this: “On getting scooped in ecology“). Although Powell et al. mention some of these concerns, no suggestions for addressing them […]

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