• Beaten to the punch


    It’s a horror scenario: discovering that, after years of work, a rival research group has published about your discovery. It happened to PhD student Lotteke Swier, and it has happened to many other scientists from Groningen.
    in short

    Biochemistry PhD Lotteke Swier suddenly saw her research on a transport protein in Nature Communications. She had been scooped.

    It’s every researcher’s worst fear. It can jeopardise a PhD candidate’s doctoral diploma or post doc position, or it could mean that you are overlooked when grants are being awarded.

    What should you do? Quickly publish in a journal with a lower impact in order to be ahead of the competition or take more time and publish in a higher impact journal?

    It is not always clear what rival groups are up to. Researchers do not dare to share everything at conferences. ‘People can easily take pictures of every slide using mobile phones’.

    However, rushing and allowing the quality of their work to suffer under competitive pressure is something the researchers from Groningen try to avoid.

    More appreciation for duplicate studies could mitigate the problem. Back-to-back publishing of similar research is also an option.

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    She really didn’t want to open the attachment at all. It was the summer of 2015 and Lotteke Swier, a PhD candidate in biochemist Dirk Slotboom’s research group, had done almost three years’ worth of research into the promising transportion protein ECF. Getting published in a high impact journal seemed to be a done deal: her field is very much in at the moment. It could have been Nature or one of its subsidiaries.

    But then came the email from a fellow PhD candidate. ‘I think this is something new in your field’, he wrote. Attached was an article from Nature Communications and from the title alone, she could see that it was not good news. Somebody had published about her protein. She had been scooped.


    ‘I became kind of withdrawn for while’, she says now, with a sense of understatement. Her PhD supervisor recalls it slightly differently: ‘Tears were shed’.

    It was rival Chinese researchers that had scooped Slotboom’s group. The previous instance was in 2013 when Swier had only just started her research. Then, they were the first to publish about the crystal structure of this kind of protein in Nature. That also sucks, she says, but back then, she had barely worked on it. This time was different. ‘We thought we had a wonderful story and we were busy optimizing our data’, she says. ‘But then you think: what was the point?’

    She eventually picked herself up and brushed herself off. She had to. ‘I looked at the data with Dirk to see whether we could find anything new in it.’


    Luckily, it worked. The combination of her data with a good foundation from the existing literature produced an article which was ultimately better. Where the Chinese had taken a ‘photo’ of the protein, Swier and Slotboom made a ‘video’ in which they were able to unravel the protein’s inner workings. And that article appeared in top journal Nature Communications on Wednesday.

    It is a nightmare scenario for virtually every scientist: turning on your computer one day and clicking on your favourite journal’s website for the latest news only to see work you have put years of energy into published under someone else’s name. That means your top-level research is a little less top and, in some cases, is even rendered totally worthless in one fell swoop.

    Killer competition

    Theoretical physicist Eric Bergshoeff also experienced this when he couldn’t sleep one night and was having a look at some articles. He never went back to bed that evening, nor for several nights to follow, because he and his PhD student had to finish the article which had just been scooped in the hope that it would still be accepted. ‘Fortunately, it was’, he says. In his field, quick online publications are not uncommon.

    ‘I was terrified that it would jeopardise my PhD’

    Dentists or historians – among others – do not have to worry much about this, but in chemistry or biomedical sciences, for example, the competition is killer. Sometimes, you know that other groups are working on the same subjects, but at other times, you don’t. But there is always the fear of someone else beating you to it.

    It can jeopardise a PhD candidate’s doctoral diploma or post doc position, or it could mean that you are overlooked when grants are being awarded because the higher you publish, the better it is for your career.

    Panic attack

    Molecular biologist Marcel van Vugt experienced the same thing when he was a PhD candidate. One day, his PhD supervisor received an article to review which contained his very research into a new, elegant way of de-activating a gene. ‘The feeling that you have discovered something unique is momentarily lost. Then comes the damage control, and then the pressure to publish your own research as quickly as possible.’ In the end, he was able to publish his article in the less prominent JCB and it was ‘well read’. Still: ‘It was very tense.’

    Not long ago he received an email from an old colleague who now works in England. He had overheard something by the coffee machine. ‘His boss had received something to be reviewed which was comparable to what we were doing, so we really starting hustling.’

    ‘We heard that the rival piece would possibly be published in Nature’, says Van Vugt’s PhD student Rolf de Boer. ‘You have a panic attack for a second when you hear something like that. I was terrified that my PhD would be jeopardised and all that work would be for nothing.’

    Needle in a haystack

    He started googling like a mad man. Had there already been something published about his topic? It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. ‘Ultimately, we did not have anything online, so it was also impossible for them to find us.’

    ‘At a conference, I don’t show exactly how I did something’

    His research wound up in Developmental Cell – just in time. And the other piece of research? It was never published. Why it wasn’t and who was behind, Van Vugt and De Boer will never know. ‘Maybe we scooped them in the end’, says Van Vugt. ‘Journals such as Nature, Science and Cell and their subsidiaries can decide up until the last day not to publish an article.’

    ‘It forces you to really consider things carefully’, confirms Rob Coppes, who works on stem cell research, among other things. He submitted his research on stem cell therapy for damage to the salivary gland following radiation treatment – perhaps prematurely – to PLOS ONE. He had hoped to be published in Nature Medicine, but the journal asked for additions which would cost a lot of time and Coppes knew that there was another group working on the same thing. ‘It has gotten a lot of attention and follow up grants’, he says.

    His data was finalised a few months later, so perhaps it would have been a better idea to wait. It’s a tough call to make.


    In any case, he is more relaxed now. But that’s not because he’s unafraid of being scooped. ‘That is always a possibility’, he says, but he is older now. What’s more: ‘Back then, I was not a professor, and now I am; that makes a difference.’

    Which would you choose? Publishing quickly so that you are guaranteed to have a publication, even if it’s a lower impact journal and the research itself is less complete? And how much of your research data do you dare share as a scientist at conference?

    Bert Poolman, a colleague of Slotboom, recently scooped some of his contemporaries. Two articles covering the same topic ended up at Nature Methods nearly simultaneously. The methods were almost the same, except that Poolman and his associates had changed course at a certain moment and gone for a method which offered more options. The editorial team picked the article from Groningen.

    It was pure coincidence that they were in each other’s territory, Poolman says. ‘But sometimes, we think that others will closely monitor us and make use of our knowledge and groundwork.’

    This is almost certainly the case with the Swier’s article which was scooped by the Chinese, Slotboom suspects. He talked about it at a conference and quite possibly even pointed the competition in the right direction. However, he is not planning on keeping his mouth shut, and Poolman could not agree more. ‘You give a lot away, but you also get a lot in return. The feedback that you receive from colleagues helps to make your work better.’

    ‘Brute force’ research

    Conferences where only the published data is presented are often disappointing, he says. In that regard, he is enthusiastic about the Gordon Research Conferences where at least half of all presented research must be unpublished. ‘That is the way it should be’, he says.

    Coppes is more cautious. ‘In any case, I will not show how I have done something and I will leave the newest data out’, he says. ‘You never know where the information you share will end up, and with mobile phones, people can easily take pictures of every slide.’

    As such, a lot of the process takes place during get-togethers and in the corridors of the labs, when a colleague tugs your sleeve and says, ‘you have to talk to him’ or ‘she has interesting data’.

    However, rushing and allowing the quality of research to suffer under competitive pressure is something that scientists from Groningen try to avoid. ‘We do not want to compromise on the thoroughness. We may not publish a lot, but when we do publish, it’s in good journals’, says Poolman. ‘The ‘brute force’ research, where Chinese or Japanese institutes assign dozens of PhD candidates to a small topic, is not something you can match in Groningen. So we have to opt for quality’, states Slotboom.

    Scoop protection

    It seems that something is wrong with the system when a good research project is worth less than research on a comparable topic just because it was published elsewhere earlier. ‘We are arguing for a Journal of Reproducible Studies’, says Coppes. ‘Research which you cannot reproduce is simply worthless.’

    More back-to-back publishing, which is already occurring, could also be a solution. In such cases, two comparable studies are published at the same time in the same journal. Sometimes an article is even held onto so that a second article can be published along with it. Most scientists feel that could be an elegant solution, even though it seems that the prominence of the authors of the ‘second’ article affects the choice of the editorial team.

    Another solution: more journals with scoop protection, such as the life sciences journal Embo. Embo uses the submission of an article as an evaluation point, so that you do not have to be afraid that your research could end up in the rubbish bin at any given moment.

    The alternative – only letting PhDs do ‘safe’ research so that their doctoral diploma cannot be jeopardised – is not something anyone wants. ‘I am a striver’, admits Lotteke Swier. ‘I want to be the one who researches what is really going on.’