AFRAID OF SCOOPING? Case Study on Perceived vs. Actualized Risks of Sharing Research Outputs

This post is based on my conference paper presentation at the SciDataCon 2016. The paper was part of a session called “Getting the incentives right: removing social, institutional and economic barriers to data sharing“. My slides can be seen here The abstract for the paper has been published on this blog here. I will be submitting a full paper for the Data Science Journal special SciDataCon 2016 collection. A preprint will be available on Zenodo. [Edit: link to preprint added.]

Getting scooped, having your research idea or results published by someone else, is a common fear among researchers. It can be a major stress factor and an energy drain.

The risk of scooping is often used as a counter argument for open science, especially open research data.

One recent testament to this argumentation is a New England Journal of Medicine editorial, in which a group of over 200 medical researchers presented their conditions for data sharing, including embargoes up to five years, fees for data reuse and processes for quality control.

All scooping isn’t illegitimate. Most often scooping is accidental. Science has trends and big questions that researchers flock to address. Scooping becomes misconduct only when idea or content used was taken from another researcher, without giving them credit. In the language of research integrity and research ethics illegitimate scooping is called misappropriation.

In the context of open science making the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate scooping boils down to credit: it’s okay to take inspiration from others and use someone else’s data published with an open license, as long as you cite the source.

I was interviewing researchers doing radically open science for my Phd, that deals with research integrity, and the fear of scooping came up. I started to wonder what made it possible for these individuals to do what they did despite the fear, seen as an obstacle to openness by so many of their peers.

In this case study I have looked into the openness strategies and practices of two open collaboration research projects created by Finnish researchers.

The Social Media for Citizen Participation, or SOMUS project, was created by a loose online collective called the Open Research Swarm. The Swarm operated on a Finnish microblogging service Jaiku, which has since ceased to exist. SOMUS combined methods from engineering sciences and social sciences, co-creating and testing applications and social media platforms with citizen stakeholders.

NMR Lipids project is an ongoing open scientific collaboration project to understand the atomistic resolution structures of lipid bilayers. The discussions happens on a Blogspot based blog, while manuscripts and data are developed on Github. ArXiv and Zenodo repositories are used for preprints.

The primary source of this study are the interviews of two key researchers from each project. My methodological toolbox includes influences from social science history and social psychology of science. For understanding and describing the projects I have used cultural-historical activity theory and it’s activity system model.

The openness strategies of the two projects could be described by the term “open by default”. There were no conscious measures taken to prohibit scooping. The SOMUS project proposal was drafted completely openly. Instead of scooping them competitors aiming for the same funding call ended up actively avoiding overlaps in their proposals, some even contributed to the SOMUS proposal. The tragedy of SOMUS was that sharing funding among the Open Swarm was difficult and created tension, catalysing the collective’s disintegration. Also, the carefree enthusiasm resulted in a lack of concern for data management. Today only a PDF report remains openly available online.

The NMRLP turned the tables and instead of worrying about scooping has made sure that they don’t themselves inadvertently scoop anyone. Participants are expected to credit ideas received even in informal discussions. Anyone who has commented on the blog is eligible for co-authorship. It remains for each participant to decide for themselves whether their conribution is enough. The interviewed researchers told that neither of the projects published articles have free-rider co-auhtors, something that is actually rare in their field.

I found out that instead of being a disincentive, the fear of scooping actually acted as an incentive for one of the projects. For the researcher in question it was a way of getting rid of a constant stress. When you work is published online from the get-go, it is easier to prove priority.

All of the interviewed researchers named the unfairness of the academic publishing model as a motivation for creating alternative ways of disseminating research. One of the projects also wanted to address the normalization of p-hacking style bad practice in their field.

Even though the interviewees showed a level of mistrust for the research community at large, they had a high level of trust in their immediate community.

They worried about advancing their careers and a precarious career stage, meaning lack of funding or permanent position was a key motivation for most, but they were not prepared to compromise their principles in pursuing success. All named scientific curiosity as a source of fullfilment and motivation. They were aware of their pioneer status and excited by it.

Making generalizations based on a case study is always a risky business, but with maybe a half a grain of salt there can be general lessons to be learned here.

The interviews show a link between understanding and recognising research integrity and research ethics issues and the willingness to share. Research integrity training for researchers is already a policy priority at least in Europe and this conclusion only adds to it’s importance.

Exploring beyond one’s immediate research field can foster new ideas, research methods and questions. Again, multidisciplinarity is a research policy staple, but more should be done to make it mainstream.

Data citation principles and practices need to be in place ASAP, so that researcher’s work doesn’t get scooped just because no-one knows how to give proper credit on data.

The open collaboration projects show a worrying lack of engagement from women. The level of female participation was in both cases below of what can be considered typical for the fields: about 25% for SOMUS and 1/30 for NMRLP. The gender-specific concerns in the way of sharing should be recognised and addressed.

The experiences of empowerment, excitement and curiosity that open sharing and collaboration can offer should be communicated more, with less focus on buzzwords, policies, requirements and demands.

This could be done through case examples and champions. But in order to have them, efforts in sharing should be rewarded. One of my four interviewees grew tired of the precariousness of a researchers life and is working as a college teacher, while another is contemplating leaving academia altogether because the numerous pats-on-the-back are yet to translate into project funding or a position.


1 Comment

  1. Very interesting – food for thought! It has been quite a while since I have published in academic journals, but today I have a very open source-y and informal way to communicate my research as a business owner … which often seems to come as a surprise. I feel ‘sharing’ is ‘disrupting’ very different industry sectors and different kinds of publishing!


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