Friday, January 12, 2007

Race to Obscurity

This week has been going very well -- one paper accepted, a manuscript submitted (excellent grad student first author), a couple of reviews completed, and some progress on various other manuscripts. Then today I heard that a group in Europe has submitted a manuscript that is on a similar topic to one of mine submitted last summer. On the scale of my typical papers, my in-review manuscript is rather huge -- lots of data, and a big synthesis of work that has been ongoing for more than a decade. So I am anxious. We are not talking about fame or fortune here, just a topic (and paper) that I care a lot about. I am trying to keep some perspective: if my paper is any good, it will be read; if their paper is good, fine.

Even so, although some competition can be stimulating and fun, this is not one of those cases. The other group has been aggressive and vocal about the fact that they don't like my work. They are also sneaky. They started working on the topic after I did, based on one of my papers from about 10 years ago. They didn't inform me that they were working on the same thing, even though one of this group had been in contact with me to get some information for an unspecified purpose, and I had helped him with some analyses. A few years ago, this group wrote what can only be called an 'attack paper'. I call it that because it criticized me by name in 17 places in a ~20 page paper, and didn't seem to have much purpose other than that. Fortunately, the paper was published in a low-impact journal, but even so, it was not a nice thing to see. I didn't bother to write a comment, as that would be (to use the eloquent words of one of the commenters to this blog) "feeding the trolls".

If I force myself to look at the positive aspects of this, I guess I could say that it is a good sign that other people think at least some of my research topics are important. I can think of 3 other recent examples in which other groups started working on topics that I started working on first. That is much better than being isolated, working on something no one cares about. Perhaps I am being stereotypically female, though, by wishing that everyone could just be nicer about all these 'races'. Not less competitive, just nicer.

But then, I am not always nice: I won a 'race to obscurity' with another group last year when we submitted manuscripts on related topics at the same time; mine appeared in December and theirs was rejected. I am not happy that their paper was rejected, but I was glad that my paper was published (first).


Anonymous said...

My very first paper attracted its own stalker - about a year later, someone I had met but don't know well, published a paper similar to your "attack paper" where its sole purpose seemed to be "Anon et. al. is wrong!". Trick was, they used different stimuli, and hid that in the details.

Not only that; but I used a different computational method in my paper, than had been used in similar previous papers. The author of the "Anon et al. is wrong!" paper WROTE IT UP and published it as a separate, later paper .... that gets tons of citations, as it's a much better method for what it does.

Given the first paper, she can hardly claim she didn't know about mine. And yet the second methods paper, which is MY METHOD, doesn't mention me at all.

Do I sound bitter?

Anonymous said...

Since we have no control over others' ethics, I would just concentrate on new important topics and learn to protect them. I read from Chien-Shiung Wu's biography that she was very good at that.

Anonymous Professor said...

I had a similar situation in which someone asked me for some data I was in the process of writing up, which I sent, and the guy went on to replicate my experiment and publish the results before I could get mine out (I was working on many things at the time). I seriously wanted to kill him, and I told him as much, and he literally told me "You snooze you lose." What a prick.

Anonymous said...

One Word : Karma!

What goes around, comes around!

sab said...

I don't know if it's stereotypcally female to want to all get along in science, but I'm constantly shocked at what seems to be such childish behaviour from competing groups! Gender aside, we're supposed to be grown-ups right? And as scientists working towards expanding knowledge? Ok, maybe that's too idealist, but seriously, there is too much squabbling, squatting, and scooping and not enough constructive debate in a lot of cases.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

My graduate advisor, definitely one of those "trolls", recently used some of his contacts to get almost 10 years worth of data from a totally separate group. He then submitted and published the data analysis in one of those "quick communications" papers while the paper written by the group who collected the data was still in review.

Karma: The incident was written up as a news report (with interviews from him and the leader of the other group) in a journal with an ISI impact factor = 40. That's right, forty. You've got two guesses.

Ms.PhD said...

Dear FSP and Anon,

If they hate you enough to write a whole paper attacking you, consider it a compliment. Not the highest compliment, perhaps, but you've got to be on the right track when you can piss people off that much.

re: sharing unpublished data... When I was in grad school, one of my anti-mentors had a saying written on the board in her lab. It said something about how unpublished data effectively don't exist. Much as I hated her attitude, that particular sentiment is actually correct. Even if some great breakthrough is discovered among your belongings after you die, somebody has to publish it in your name for anyone to know about it. Here's hoping it doesn't always take that long to publish!

I like the way you put "squatting, and scooping" together. Suddenly 'scooping' reminded me of walking dogs... really what we're stealing from each other is probably not worth fighting about, except for the work we put into it lends it a certain emotional importance to use personally...

I always strive to be emotionally invested in my work while I'm doing it, and detached from my work when the experiments are done and I'm analyzing, writing and trying to publish. Easier said than done, of course, as timing is still everything.