I was studying a delightfully niche subject: the function of a single gene in roundworms. Convinced that these little animals were wonderful, and that my gene held the key to a deeper understanding of all life on earth, I was equally certain that there was no one else in the world who shared my interest.
I was wrong.
After four years of messy lab work and countless weekends in a dark and humming microscopy room in Antwerp, an American team I had no knowledge of published the same research I had been working on. The same gene, the same wriggly roundworm. They published their research in a high-impact journal, the kind that could almost make your career as a Ph.D. student. Their first three experiments were identical to mine, with identical results. The rest was not far off.
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I was wrong.
After I spent years on messy lab work and countless weekends in a dark and humming microscopy room in Leuven, Belgium, an American team I had no knowledge of published the same research I had been working on. The same gene, the same wriggly roundworm. The scientists published their research in a high-impact journal, the kind that could almost make your career as a Ph.D. student. Their first three experiments were identical to mine, with identical results. The rest was not far off.
They had not been aware of my team’s research, even though I had presented results at three international conferences in the preceding years. It made no difference, of course. In the days after being scooped, my colleagues were careful with me, as if a loved one had died or I had received a terrible diagnosis. It shouldn’t be this way, and scoop-induced sympathy seems to be a sign of higher ed’s dysfunctional research culture.
Two elements are crucial for early-career academic success: (1) total dedication to one’s subject and (2) being first to publish. If the latter element fails, the first makes sure you’re in for a rough ride. When your research is scooped by a peer — someone you might not have known even existed — things fall apart. My research was everything: It was the reason I shirked social obligations, the reason I didn’t sleep, the reason I got out of bed anyway in the morning. That type of dedication, fostered by academic institutions and the scientific publishing industry, is unhealthy, so why do we put up with it?
When I was growing up, the following piece of wisdom was ubiquitous: If you live to work, you live the life of a servant. That attitude disappears as soon as you enter the academic world. For us, it’s normal to be obsessed by our subjects. We want nothing more than to work. The humorous Twitter account Shit Academics Say summed that mind-set up well in a tweet last year: “I am currently away from the office and have intermittent access to email. If your email is not urgent I will in all likelihood still reply within 10 minutes due to ineffective self-regulation and an inability to maintain work-life balance.” A failure to separate work and life is expected of researchers. It’s a prerequisite for holding on. It’s the way to success.
Except that it’s not. Dedication may be necessary, but it is not a sufficient precondition for success. The two are not mutually inclusive. When your research is everything and publishing is the only benchmark for success, your publication list becomes a proxy for self-esteem. When your research becomes unpublishable, your self-esteem drops to zero.
We need to do a better job in higher ed of disconnecting those two ideas because the truth is that success in academe is, in certain regards, arbitrary. If you want to publish in a top journal — the only meaningful indicator for success — then you have to be lucky with your subject, the guidance and funding you receive, and — perhaps most important — your timing. If you lack any of those components, dedication may lead not to success, but to anxiety, depression, and isolation.
My story of getting scooped sounds exceptional, but only to friends and relatives outside the scientific world. What are the chances that someone on the other side of the world is studying the same weirdly specific subject as you are? Quite high, it turns out. Almost all experienced researchers I talked to had a similar story. Sometimes they were scooped, and sometimes they were the scooper. In the first case, their world had also fallen apart, for a while.
Those same senior researchers had one consolation for me. Being scooped was, in fact, nothing more than the scientific method in action: Verification is just as important as discovery. Indeed, independent research leading to the same result is a triumph for science. But not for the scientist — at least not in our academic climate.
Things seem to be changing, but like most things academic, they do so slowly. More and more scientific journals are recognizing the importance of secondary research that was conducted in an independent and sometimes simultaneous way. My research, which may have lost its news value, found its place in a scientific journal with a complementary research policy, designed specifically to provide a home for scoopees. This is a consolation prize, but it is infinitely better than nothing. That complementary-research policy, however, had been in place for less than a year, and the journal in question was one of the first to use it. In prior years, my story would not have had a happy ending.
The current experience of young researchers is a grueling social experiment. Academic journals may be opening up to complementary research, but institutions, for the most part, are not. Despite increased attention to mental health and work-life balance, publish or perish is more alive than ever. To argue that perishing is part of the risk of academic life is defeatist and bitter. No career path, no matter the prestige or passion, should be bad for your health.