Follow up to owning ideas & being scooped

Aug 02 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I very much appreciate all of the various thoughts and comments to yesterday's post on being scooped. If I wasn't clear, let me say that it wasn't out and out plagiarism. The ideas and the flow of logic in the intro were very very similar to what I had written in the proposal, but the wording was not the same. There were 5 authors on the paper, and I'm guessing that the student who was the lead did the writing. I doubt that anyone had a copy of my proposal in hand whilst writing this paper.

There are a couple of other things I'd like to clarify. Firstly, I do know the last author/big dog (LA/BD)on the paper, the one who was on study section and most certainly had access to, if not actually reviewed the proposal. We've known each other for over 20 years, not well, but certainly on chatting basis. We've sat on study section, and reviewed the same proposals then. Furthermore, this woman's science is excellent. In the more clinical leaning parts of what I do, most of the work is awful, just plain awful clinical research, with all the usual suspects: cherry picking data for results, p-hacking, bad controls and contempt of animal work. This woman, and her trainees have always been a bright light of clarity in the sub-field. My new trainees always read several of her early papers to understand the field.

Secondly, I spoke with a mutual colleague (MC) yesterday. This colleague, who is an incredible young scientist in her own right, was a PhD student of LA/BD, and someone I hired (as an ass't prof) at my former MRU. MC and I have published and argued and worked together for over 10 years. She is now more senior, moved on from former-MRU, and not just a great scientist, but a great human being. I trust her. MC had many insightful things to say to me about LA/BD including that LA/BD has an incredible command of the literature, and yes, would quite likely know all the obscure papers I found. Further, MC, who knows my work, and in fact read the proposal in question, says that there are deep roots for this topic in the work of LA/BD, and, gave me cites for that. MC was insightful, clear-eyed and sympathetic. What a joy to have friends & colleagues like that.

Thirdly, LA/BD is off study section. LA/BD is certainly near retirement age, and the probability that, if she did do anything wrong, that she would do this again, is relatively small. I am not sure that either the PO or the SRO would be interested in listening to me about this. I've moved IC's.

Finally, after talking with MC, I have developed a plan of action! I am going to write to LA/BD and not accuse her of anything. Merely say I liked the paper, and that I'm interested in the same topic, and here's a paper I published a while ago (of which she is undoubtedly aware) that's relevant. I'm interested in collaboration, as we bring different strengths to the table. We'll both be at a small conference thing (organized, needless to say by MC) in the fall, and why don't we talk then?

For me, the bottom line is an expression of my mother's: the game is not worth the candle. I can do what I want in this area, including resubmitting the proposal. There is enough separation in the work that what I do will be publishable, no matter what comes out of her group. Why waste my energy on fighting something that may or may not have been a wrong done to me? Life is way too short.

I also perceive a larger point, of which this is only one species of a bigger genus. When someone does unarguable wrong to you (and this situation is not so clear cut), what is the optimal response? It depends, of course, on the extent of the wrong. Some wrongs need to be fought and resisted because they are not an insult, but doing very real damage to one or one's allies. Some are just irrelevant, the guy that cuts ahead of you in line at the coffee shop. But many others are a swamp, a quicksand of intellectual and energetic loss, that will suck the life out of you. It is easy when one is young, and full of righteous indignation against the ills of the world, or when one is old, and weary of fighting the same damn battles over and over, to see wrongs as falling into that first category. But sometimes, even when it is a real wrong, when someone did scoop your precious best-beloved baby idea, the right thing is taking a step back and saying to one's self: I would rather be doing science.


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