In the highly competitive world of cell and molecular biology, there are no prizes for coming second. But is the pressure to be the first to publish 'hot' results distorting scientific progress? Helen Pearson investigates.
In 1998, Robert Insall abandoned his own lab and set up camp in that of his wife, cell biologist Laura Machesky. For three months, the pair slaved into the night at University College London. Their goal was to confirm a tantalizing link between biochemical signals entering a cell and the proteins that direct the cell's movement and division. The reason for the researchers' urgency: the fear that one of two competing labs would stumble on the same findings and 'scoop' them.
In the end, the effort paid off. Competitors cursed as Machesky revealed her findings at that year's meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) in San Francisco. At the poster summarizing her talk, someone whipped out a mobile phone and started reading the methods to researchers in their lab. Machesky and Insall were the first to publish their findings1, but within months, four other papers had appeared describing similar results2,3,4,5.
Insall and Machesky's determination to be first may seem extreme, but such obsession is not unusual among cell and molecular biologists. The stakes are high: peer recognition, a grant — even a sought-after faculty position — can be won or lost on the back of a ground-breaking paper. And unlike some other fields, where gathering data takes years, it is sometimes possible to turn round an experiment, get it written up and submitted to a journal in a matter of days or weeks. With today's off-the-shelf laboratory kits, plus instant access to genome data, many experiments can rapidly be copied. So it's not surprising that biologists following a hot lead tend to play their cards close to their chests.
The race to publish first has always been there, and is generally thought to help accelerate scientific progress. But many cell and molecular biologists are worried that things are reaching such a frenzied pitch that cracks are beginning to show. At some scientific meetings, for example, mutual suspicion is drying up the free exchange of ideas. More pressingly, some researchers fear that spiralling competition is encouraging the rapid publication of 'quick and dirty' experiments — a trend that is now being abetted by the swift turnaround of papers facilitated by electronic submission and online publication. “I don't think there's time to do things carefully,” says Steven Reed, who works on the cell cycle at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.
Ambitious scientists may drive much of the competition, but researchers say that journals must also shoulder some of the blame. They argue that top journals fuel competition by milking the research community for novel results — and, according to some biologists, are sometimes prepared to let standards drop in order to publish a particularly hot finding. “There's more emphasis on novelty than if you've really done a good job,” complains Stephen Schoenberger at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology.
Competition is nothing new in science, but the available data seem to support the impression that it is becoming more intense. One survey6 found that the number of scientists who were unwilling to talk openly about their work rose from 50% in 1966 to 74% in 1998. In addition, more than three-quarters of biologists surveyed in 1998 expressed the fear that they might be scooped. “There's a trend towards increasing paranoia,” agrees Tyler Jacks, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Perhaps the most obvious casualty is the 'buzz' surrounding new results presented at scientific meetings. Many researchers tell tales of revealing results in a PowerPoint presentation, only to see similar findings materialize in a competitor's paper just weeks later. “It is absolutely routine to be squeezed for information at a meeting by someone, only to find out that they are working on the same thing without revealing it,” says Karel Svoboda, a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York.
Scared by the threat of a scoop, some tight-lipped biologists refuse to present work that is not already safely published or in the press. Novel results are getting so thin on the ground that some frustrated researchers are abandoning major talks at big gatherings, such as the annual meeting of the ASCB, preferring to share ideas at smaller meetings, in the bar, or not at all. “It's really terrible. Competition has almost made conferences obsolete,” laments Thomas Maniatis, a molecular biologist at Harvard University.
While some researchers fret about competition stifling communication at meetings, its impact on published research is also giving cause for concern. Some biologists say that the constant battle for the scoop means that they are being forced to cut their experiments short in order to publish before their rivals — a trend that they fear is starting to undermine the quality of the scientific literature.
Race against time
Cases in which researchers and journals have raced each other are not hard to find. In January this year, for example, a team led by Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, submitted a paper to Nature that pinpointed the gene underlying a rare disorder called Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome, which causes sufferers to age prematurely. The gene, called lamin A, encodes proteins that are building blocks of the cell nucleus.
Collins says that publication of his study was delayed because a second manuscript arrived at Nature in February reporting a mouse model of progeria7. Nature's usual policy is to publish such closely related papers together. But then Collins heard of a paper scheduled for publication in Science, identifying mutations in the lamin A gene in two progeria patients. “That was a stunner,” he says.
The lead researcher on the Science paper, Nicolas Lévy of INSERM, the French medical research agency, in Marseille, says he had suspected that there was an overlapping paper in the press. Lévy says that this led him to write his paper in a matter of days, but he is adamant that he didn't rush his experiments.
Anxious to avoid being scooped, Collins called Lévy to ask if he would be willing to announce the results simultaneously — and asked Nature to accelerate his own study's publication. Science received Lévy's paper8 on 4 March, accepted it on 1 April and published it online on 17 April. Collins's Nature paper9 appeared online eight days later. But the journal bent its normal rules to allow Collins to announce his results on the same day that Lévy's paper came out.
Other researchers argue that such competitive antics are far from ideal — and in some cases might cause incomplete or sloppy work to be published. “It's not a great way to do the best science,” says Susan Michaelis, a cell biologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
The electronic age has lent such contests a new sense of urgency. Where once authors considered themselves relatively safe in the weeks or months between submission and publication, the advent of electronic submission, e-mail reviews and online publication mean that a competing paper can be reviewed, revised and published in a matter of days. “It ratchets things up a bit,” says Stuart Firestein, who studies smell receptors at Columbia University in New York.
Whether increasing competition and rapid online publication are conspiring to undermine standards remains a matter of opinion. But some biologists admit that there is always the temptation to cut a few corners to get work published quickly. “It's a gamble,” says Larry Katz, a neuroscientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. “Do I make it a great paper or do I get it out the door?”
Many researchers believe that leading journals such as Nature, Science and Cell could help to ease excessive competition by relaxing their demands for exclusive results. At Nature and Science, for instance, a paper will generally be turned down if it arrives a few weeks after one with largely overlapping conclusions has come out, even if it is of comparable quality. Some biologists argue that this is too harsh — a second or third paper may actually be more thorough and influential to a field. “It should be possible to publish work that isn't neck and neck,” says Reed.
Biology editors at Science and Nature claim that a strict criterion of novelty is necessary, given the enormous number of manuscripts that the journals receive. Nature's chief biological-sciences editor, Ritu Dhand, denies that the journal sacrifices quality in order to get a scoop. “We would not skip a re-review or revision if it was deemed critical to the conclusion,” agrees Science's deputy editor for life sciences, Katrina Kelner. Editors at Cell declined to comment.
But ultimately, some biologists argue that it is up to individual researchers not to be drawn into a cycle of excessive competition. Really sloppy work will ultimately lose you your collaborators, respect and reputation — the very things you are competing to earn. “A difference in days or weeks doesn't matter,” says Keith Yamamoto, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco. “It's how good the work is.”
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American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (2017)
Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis (2013)
Nature Medicine (2005)