Worried about scooping? What scooping?
I’m surprised at how many in the biology community don’t seem to know about the “scooping Protection” policy that many journals have adopted. It’s the most progressive development in scientific publishing since preprints. Check it out.
Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2022). Worried about scooping? What scooping?Zenodo https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6667238
This summer I attended a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) on Plant Molecular Biology. The meeting took place at the private Holderness School, tucked on the edge of the White Mountains of New Hampshire in New England, USA, a place that can feel like the middle of nowhere. It’s a wonderful, small, slow paced conference, which greatly facilitates interactions among participants. Unlike larger meetings, you will have the opportunity to talk to any of the attendees throughout the week. One highlight for me was the informal chats with students and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) on the wooden benches outside the dining area. It’s hard not to soak in the positive vibes and chill away from the daily buzz. Unless, of course you are a Ph.D. student anxiously awaiting the reviews of a major paper 😜
But Gordon Research Conferences aren’t perfect. And I’m not talking about the small dormitory rooms and shared bathrooms. Nor about the mosquitoes that invade this part of New England in the summer. My PhD Supervisor Cal Kado — who organized several Fallen Leaf Lake Conferences in South Lake Tahoe in California on the opposite side of the country — likes to make fun of the GRCs. I quote: “Fallen Leaf Lake is no mosquito infested, overheated Gordon Conference site.” It must have been inspiring. Cal wrote that the term term plasmid biology was first conceived in 1990 at the Fallen Leaf Lake Conference on Promiscuous Plasmids.
The real reason GRCs have issues is their outdated take on confidentiality.
As Slow As Possible Biology: Gordon Research Conferences obsession with confidentiality
Gordon Research Conferences maintain a strict policy about confidentiality — the “No Publication Policy” — that predates the internet. It states that “any information presented at a Gordon Research Conference or Gordon Research Seminar, whether in a formal talk, poster session, or discussion, is a private communication from the individual making the contribution and is presented with the restriction that such information is not for public use.” They view this as a “core principle that provides the foundation for strong communities of scientists.”
I’d like to think that most scientists hold high ethical standards. But how do we know? How can anyone be sure that in the few cases where a piece of information needs to remain confidential, it will not make its way out a GRC event? The same of course holds for peer-review of journal articles and grants. All it takes is a few people who don’t follow the rules for this honor system to collapse.
There is another issue with the GRC policy. As my colleague and fellow Academic Editor at PLOS Biology Cara Haney wrote: “There is so much more to be gained by open exchanges of ideas, beyond those that paid to be in the room, than is lost by the risk of competition.” In fact, open science and transparency can protect you from competitors, they ensure that credit is recorded whether it’s through a tweet or a doi (digital object identifier). This is what provides a foundation for strong scientific communities. Not the notion that we are all engaged in raging competition, and that only the few who can afford the registration fees and the long and expensive trip to the New Hampshire mountains can access scientific information.
Perhaps the most deplorable consequence of the GRC’s No Publication Policy is that the use of social media, primarily Twitter, is prohibited. So instead of impacting hundreds of scientists throughout the planet, the knowledge shared at Gordon Conferences and Seminars remains limited to the few dozens of in-person attendees. How does this fit with the GRC mission “to advance the frontiers of science and provide an international forum for the presentation and discussion of frontier research”? What about all the scientists who cannot get visas or travel to the US? What about those who cannot afford the hefty Attendee Registration Fee ($950.0 for a Single Room)? What about students and scientists from low-resource countries?
This policy is a legacy of bygone days when science wasn’t as rapidly communicated as it is today and open online platforms like Twitter and bioRxiv didn’t exist. No wonder that biologists refer to the incredibly successful preprint movement as As Soon As Possible Biology (ASAPbio). Science advances more rapidly when the information flow is accelerated by Twitter and preprints. Think about the impact that preprints have had on enabling a faster response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Science Magazine — normally lukewarm about anything to do with preprints — went hyperbolic and described this as an “information revolution.” The pandemic, Kai Kuppferschmidt wrote, “has upended the ways researchers share findings and collaborate.” Where does this leave the print hard copy of Science that the publisher of the Magazine, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), ships to each of its 120,000 members. Not nice for tree conservation, is it? I sure hope they use recycled paper at least.
A cynic of course would say that the only reason the GRC has maintained its No Pub Policy in the digital era is because they are worried about losing revenue through lower attendance. The same cynic would also say that AAAS pushes the print copy of Science Magazine to its tens of thousands of members because it can automatically include it in the membership fee. This cynic may even think that the Governing Boards of these non-profit organizations are more concerned about loss of revenue than promoting science and helping scientific communities. But I’m not that cynic. I’d like to believe that these societies are living up to their mission statements rather than putting a brake on progress just to beef up their coffers.
Scooped? Keep Calm and Publish in PLOS (and many other journals)
What truly surprised me at the GRC I attended is that the fear of being “scooped” by competition is alive and kicking, particularly among Early Career Researchers (ECRs). This despite the fact the many progressive actions have been put in place by the scientific community over the last years. For example, have you heard of the Scooping Protection policy?
In discussion with students and colleagues at the GRC, I was surprised by how many didn’t know about scooping protection. It’s an incredibly progressive development, arguable the most important in biology since the launch of the preprint server bioRxiv. And it should definitely make the fear of getting scooped less acute.
What is scooping protection? Basically, the publication date of your preprint gives you priority for whatever new finding you are reporting. If you post a preprint on January 1st and a similar paper is published on January 2, then your paper will not be rejected by the participating journal based on lack of novelty.
In addition, if a paper similar to yours gets published then several journals will give you 6 months to submit a similar paper.
One rationale for Scooping Protection — besides the fact that the policy is author friendly — is that it’s good for science that similar papers get published simultaneously. If they reach the same conclusions, then the science is robust. If they don’t, then the subject can be flagged as requiring more experimentation. In any case, it means that different research teams have independently challenged the same hypotheses, which beats traditional journal peer-review, normally based on reading the paper and not repeating the experiments.
To better understand the policy, read this outstanding pioneering 2018 @PLOSBiology Editorial: “The importance of being second”. It set the stage for the policy and makes me proud to be part of the PLOS family. You have to give it to PLOS for unambiguously and succinctly articulating their policies on what they refer to as “Complementary Research”.
Why is the fear of scooping so ingrained into our culture? I think this traces back to the days when if you get scooped, you simply cannot publish. Those were the days when journals weren’t available online (the internet didn’t even exist) and the filtering of the scientific literature was necessary given the cost of printing and shipping journals. But we have now moved to the digital era and those days are over. We need to embrace and celebrate this brave new world.
Despite all this, I still hear ECRs being worried about being plagiarized and scooped. One issue is the lack of information. Journals need to do a better job advertising their policies to their readers. As noted by Pavi Narayanan, journals could do a better job advertizing their scooping protection policy. PLOS does a good job at that but for the others, notably Scientific Societies, the policy is often hidden in their instructions to authors and not always clearly articulated.
Relax, nobody is stealing bad data and bad ideas
So relax, chill, do some great science and share it with your community. The best accolade a scientist can have is to influence others. Nobody is stealing bad data and bad ideas. As long as you’re getting acknowledged for it, you’ll be fine. You can claim it in job interviews, promotions, research and fellowship proposals and so on. And the community will have a record of your contribution.
It’s reassuring isn’t it? There is so much grumbling about scientific publishing. But what about all these initiatives: preprints, mini-papers, scooping protection etc. The reform movement has kicked off and is here to stay. But, remember the cynics? I meet them regularly and I hear them complain about everything. What I don’t see them do is take positive actions. Collectively, many of us are making a difference, not by complaining and sitting still, but by implementing improvements and solutions. Every little action we take will help move things forward. “Evil prevails when good people do nothing.” Do something.
The fact is science publishing has been improving over the last years. Progressive publishers, notably eLife and PLOS, are promoting more author-friendly initiatives while paying attention to ECRs and diversity. These days, you hardly hear about impact factors and it’s almost embarrassing to mention the word in many corners. And if it does come up at job interviews or promotion evaluations, then please hold your institution to the standards of the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) that they must have signed. Although commercial publishers are fighting back — fueled by Plan S and other questionable and corrosive policies disguised as well-meaning initiatives to enforce open science — I’m optimistic that the next generation of scientists will get it right. You, the ECRs, will make a difference. Then the GRC and others will have to adapt unlesss they want to go the way of the dinosaurs.
Check this excellent take by Richard Sever on the “scooping” issue and how preprints address that as “anti-scooping” devices.