The fear of being scooped

Scoopophobia (sometimes manifested as priorityma-nia) is a common occupational hazard in contemporary science. The term stems from 'scoop', which literally means to gather or collect swiftly, and "metaphorically, to top or outmanoeuvre a competitor in acquiring and publishing an important news story (it all originated in schope, Old Dutch for 'bucket'). Scoopophobia is a very focused phobia: the victim does not fear scoops in general, only those of the competitors. The first signs could become apparent already in Graduate School ('early onset'), but more commonly in postdoctoral training or immediately afterwards ('late onset', but not senile). It is a chronic malady, with a pre-tenure acute phase and subsequent recurrent exacerbations, that could linger well into postretirement. Among the presenting symptoms: manic preoccupation with one's own findings, delusions that include an amazing belief that these findings are indeed the most important in the world ever, and frequent, mostly out-of-place statements about having achieved monthly (and in severe cases weekly) outstanding breakthroughs in research. Treatments based on attempts to augment one's modesty almost always fail. The prognosis is gloomy. Unfortunately, truly afflicted individuals (not the hypochondriacs or those who play the scoopophobe to impress their peers) seldom calm down. Even rarer are the cases in which the patient freezes and stops working (bipolar scoopopho-bia). Most scoopophobics enter intermittent frenetic states, in which they increase their publication output to a level that precludes even them themselves from reading all the papers that they publish. Their main achievement in such states is occasional induction of an attack of scoopophobia in a true or imaginary competitor. The disease is potentially contagious, as some students tend to contract it from their mentors. It may hence become an endemic epidemic.

Serious and distressing as it is (to victims, family, and friends), scoopophobia is actually only a symptom of the mechanisms and pressures of the scientific "culture. The aetiology of the syndrome is composite. A primary precipitating factor is the sheer competitive drive universally favoured by academic promotion committees. But this does not account for the whole story. The explosion of information in modern science can occasionally turn even a calm person into a paranoiac. It sometimes seems as though so many people are hectically plotting to do exactly the same experiment that you yourself are planning to do at this very moment. The kinetics and volume of the scientific literature only augments this perceived threat. A simple number game illustrates the case: a search for the terms 'learning OR memory' in the citation indexes (Web-of-ScienceSM 2000), yields 3172 publications of a total of 847 708 papers for the year 1989,and 17199 of1176 391 papers in 1999. This means 62 papers per week in 1989,340 per week in 1999, i.e. a more than fivefold increase in the absolute number and an almost fourfold increase in the proportion of total scientific papers within a decade. Indeed, some of these papers could be easily neglected, but others, and in addition some that do not spell out 'learning' or 'memory' in their title, keywords, or abstract, are important. The conclusions: first, it is impossible to keep abreast of all the developments in one's discipline; second, the number of research groups that conduct research in learning and memory is amazingly large, and is on the rise.

An issue that comes immediately to mind is redundancy and its role in research. The mere use of the term 'redundancy' does some injustice to the phenomenon in the "context of science. Literally, 'redundancy' means unnecessary repetition. But usually redundancy in research is not genuine superfluity; different scientific programmes may be similar, but are seldom exactly the same in all their details and conclusions. Though for the individual researcher this similarity is sufficient to cause ego damage, for the scientific discipline it is an essential part of the game, because by virtue of the open, distributed nature of the scientific work, concepts, theories, and data are subjected to the scrutiny of repetitions and modifications. They are then either refuted, or corroborated, or modified, or simply neglected, navigating the discipline into new cycles of research ("culture; "paradigm). Hence the rules of the profession require the individual researcher to accept a certain degree of altruism: although not rewarding for the individual, redundancy is critical for the scientific community at large.

Redundancy can be either simultaneous, i.e. two or more groups start to do the same thing independently at the same time, or consequential, i.e. some groups follow the pioneering work of other groups. Most cases are of the second type. There is undoubtedly an intimate interaction between surges in consequential redundancy and the "zeitgeist. Examples in memory research include sudden interest in topics as diverse as the role of protein synthesis in "consolidation, protein phosphorylation ("protein kinase) in "synaptic plasticity, "long-term potentiation, "neurogenetics, the use of the water "maze as a memory "assay, or the search and analysis of "false memory. (Statistics illustrating the kinetics of publication on topics that had became trendy are provided in "long-term potentiation, *zeitgeist.) Not all important experimental systems in memory research had triggered major waves of publications on the same topic by other labs. For example, although the discovery of memory mutants in "Drosophila arose much interest, not many labs followed. Similarly, although "Aplysia has no doubt contributed tremendously to our understanding of the cellular bases of "plasticity, the level of redundancy generated in other labs was relatively modest. Any attempt to analyse the reason for this in terms of scientific "culture, far exceeds the scope of our current discussion. So is also the question what causes some important findings to emerge truly in parallel in independent labs (Ogburn and Thomas 1922; Merton 1961,1963).

Can one become immune to scoopophobia? An amateurish little survey suggests to me that some of those who have initiated new fields of inquiry in the neurosciences are more resistant to scoopophobia. Hence genuine self-confidence can obviously help, almost by-definition. (For a historical sampler of prioritymania among scientific giants, see Merton 1957.) Disregard for scoopophobia does not ensure that the fearless individual will be well remembered and cited. Actually, E.O. Wilson (cited in Weiner 1999) remarked that 'Progress in a scientific discipline can be measured by how quickly its founders are forgotten'. Another defence mechanism is the ostrich solution, namely, not to read the literature. Some of my best friends follow this practice. It might provide temporary, illusory relief, but also waste time and money and bounce back as a boomerang of unpleasant "surprise. Not reading the literature might have been a privilege of the old days in neuroscience; for example, Loewi (1936), who did the first experiment to prove that the "neurotransmitter "acetyl-choline is secreted in vivo, was unaware of the earlier suggestion published by Elliott (1904) that chemicals mediate messages between neurons. Would familiarity with Elliott's paper have altered the course of Loewi's experiments? Was it better for Loewi not to know? It is difficult to see how all this could have happened nowadays, with the publications/meetings/web explosion.

In some cases, unfortunately too few, the identification of simultaneous discoveries culminates in an agreement between the competing laboratories to publish back to back (e.g. Rosenblum et al. 1996; Rostas et al. 1996). In others it results in endless fights on priority. Advice to newcomers to a scientific discipline are rarely effective. But one might at least try (Cajal 1916; Cornford 1922). A somewhat useful (yet admittedly naive) way to cope with scoopophobia, live in peace with inevitable competition, appreciate how science advances, and keep a modest level of modesty, is to "recall the saying of the Jewish sage, Rabbi Tarfon: 'Not yours is the work to complete, neither is yours the freedom to idle' (Mishnah, Avot B15). It surely epitomizes the blessed infiniteness of research, on which scoops are only ephemeral minute vibrations.

Selected associations: Culture, Homo sapiens, Paradigm, Surprise

Was this article helpful?

+2 0

Post a comment