Scooped in science? Relax, credit will come your way

A study of protein databases shows that discoverers who are second to publish still end up getting a substantial portion of the recognition.

  • Ewen Callaway

Charles Darwin (left) rushed to publish On the Origin of Species after receiving a manuscript detailing similar ideas by Alfred Russel Wallace (right).
Credit: Bettmann/Getty (left) and London Stereoscopic Company/Getty (right)

Scooped in science? Relax, credit will come your way

A study of protein databases shows that discoverers who are second to publish still end up getting a substantial portion of the recognition.

2 December 2019

Ewen Callaway

Bettmann/Getty (left) and London Stereoscopic Company/Getty (right)

Charles Darwin (left) rushed to publish On the Origin of Species after receiving a manuscript detailing similar ideas by Alfred Russel Wallace (right).

Being scooped to a discovery is a scientist’s worst nightmare. But the penalties for coming second aren’t as harsh as some might think.

Scooped papers receive only about one-quarter fewer citations than do papers that were the first to report the same discovery, according to an analysis of more than 1,600 ‘races’ to determine the detailed 3D shape, or structure, of proteins and other biomolecules.

“You get a meaningful advantage for being first, but being scooped may not be as devastating as people seem to fear,” says Carolyn Stein, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge who conducted the study with her MIT colleague Ryan Hill, also an economist. Their results are described in a working paper posted to the MIT website last month.

Social scientists say that the research breaks new ground because it is able to identify and track scooped studies, including some that were never published — although they caution that the findings might not be generalizable to other fields.

“This is the first study I’m aware of that has been able to observe unpublished papers,” says Michaël Bikard, an innovations researcher at the French campus of global business school INSEAD in Fontainebleau. “This is important stuff. It really helps push the field forward.”

The history of science is rife with competition. Charles Darwin rushed out his On the Origin of Species after receiving a manuscript detailing similar ideas from Alfred Russel Wallace; Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and their supporters feuded over who invented calculus; and patent attorneys representing the University of California, Berkeley, and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are still fighting over who deserves the credit — and the financial rewards — for developing the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

Despite the prominence of such rivalries, scholars of science know little about how credit is actually apportioned for competing discoveries.

Theoretical models analysing patent races, for instance, have often assumed that, to the victor go all the spoils. In the real world, though, credit for scientific discoveries is unlikely to be winner-takes-all, say researchers.

Protein probe

One problem with studying scooped projects is that some scientists abandon a research effort after someone else has beaten them to it, says Hill, a PhD student who was partly inspired to do the study after being scooped to a project in the early years of his graduate work.

Alternatively, researchers modify the project in such a way that it is impossible to compare its eventual results with those of the paper that scooped it.

In search of an ‘apples-with-apples’ comparison of competing projects, Hill and Stein used the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a repository of more than 150,000 structures of proteins and other biomolecules.

These structures are key to understanding how proteins work, as well as how their function might be altered by drugs. Crucially for the study, scientists tend to submit structures to the PDB — under embargo — months before a paper describing the work is published in a journal (and the embargo on the PDB structure is lifted).

This approach allowed the researchers to follow 1,630 ‘races’ in which competing teams submitted to the PDB structures of the same, or closely similar, molecules between 1999 and 2017.

The cost of being scooped was moderate. Structures released second were only 2.5% less likely ever to be published, although they tended to appear in less prestigious journals (as measured by impact factor), than structures published first. Hill and Stein estimate that, as a share of 100 citations, the first paper would receive 58 and the second paper 42.

But when questioned about the effects of being scooped, scientists were much more pessimistic than those data show, according to Hill and Stein’s survey of 915 structural biologists. The scientists vastly overestimated the odds of being beaten to a discovery, and predicted that, out of 100 citations, a scooped paper would receive just 29.

But not all scientists were penalized equally for coming second, the study found. When research teams at leading universities and departments — as measured by a universities ranking table — were beaten by a team at a lower-profile institution, the second-place team got slightly more citations. And the teams at top institutions accrued an even larger share of citations when they did the scooping.

“I was blown away by this result — the fact that ‘low status’ people still get less credit than the ‘high status’ people they scoop,” says Bikard.

The study raises questions about other such factors that influence the credit that scooped papers get, Bikard adds. He expects that, the closer in time two papers are published, the more equally credit is divided. He also notes that the paper doesn’t take into account projects that are abandoned and no structure deposited in the PDB, as a result of being scooped.

Race for recognition

Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta, says the study is the first she knows of that actually measured the penalty for being scooped.

“We have known for many years that science is not a winner-takes-all ‘game’. This piece of research confirms this.” But she cautions against generalizing the study to other fields. Only well-funded laboratories usually have the resources to produce protein structures. “This restricts who can enter the contests,” she says.

Structural biologists say the study rings true in some ways, but also misses nuances of their field. Helen Berman, a structural biologist at the University of Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey, who helped found the PDB in the 1970s, says that not all of the races identified in the study may have been viewed as such by those in the field.

Hill and Stein deemed protein structures to be competing if their constituent amino-acid sequences were similar across 50% or more of the length of the protein, but Berman wonders whether this threshold was too low.

Timing alone is also unlikely to explain citation differences in structural-biology papers, says Randy Read, a structural biologist at the University of Cambridge, UK.

High-profile publications in the field increasingly present extra experiments to explain the underlying biology, alongside a protein structure, and labs that get scooped often differentiate their work by publishing such data, Read says.

And the study doesn’t capture the psychological effects of being scooped, says Venki Ramakrishnan, a structural biologist at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, his group raced several teams to determine the structure of the ribosome, a cellular machine that makes proteins. In early September 2000, a team led by Ada Yonath at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, published the structure of a ribosome subunit in Cell that Ramakrishnan’s team had also characterized. Ramakrishnan’s study came out weeks later in Nature.

“For that month, I and my lab were pretty miserable,” he says.

The researchers worried that they wouldn’t receive proper recognition for their work. That didn’t turn out to be the case.

Both Ramakrishnan’s and Yonath’s teams are credited with elucidating the ribosome-subunit structure — and the scientists each received a one-third share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Ramakrishnan’s team’s paper has racked up roughly twice as many citations as the one that scooped it.

“In the long run, it didn’t matter,” Ramakrishnan says.

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