Once upon a time, you had a topic for a book, and 'twas the fairest topic in the land. It was interesting, it was about the right size and shape. You knew where the bodies were buried, and you even began work on it – visiting archives, reading books, maybe drafting chapters, or even a whole dissertation. You talked about it to your friends and colleagues. You put it on grant applications, and on your CV as "in progress."
And then… you heard of someone working on the same topic. Someone who was further along than you. And it felt like the floor dropped out from beneath you.
Getting scooped is a common peril in academic writing, mainly because it takes us so long to publish anything. And yes, we do get possessive about our ideas. It would be a lot easier if we could just do like the kids do and lick our topic so no one else would touch it. But considering the documents we work with sometimes, that would be gross.
I've been scooped three times in my short career so far, and chances are that it will happen again. This emphatically does not mean that I know what you should do if you get scooped. But I'll tell you what I did each time, with the hopes that one or more of these ideas will work for your situation.
Scenario #1 – Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom: Working on my dissertation-based book, in a field that seemed wide-open and just crying out for it. And about two years before it's ready to send out to potential publishers, I see page proofs on a publishers' table at Kalamazoo of a book – a real book, with covers! – that seems to fill this gaping hole in the historiography that I thought my book was going to take care of. eeep!!!
- What I did: I bought the book, of course. I read it, and noticed that the author, while working on the same topic, was asking fundamentally different questions, using different types of sources. I resolved to revise with an eye to emphasizing the areas where we did not overlap, to really place those at the center of my book. And I picked up my correspondence with the author, who I had met a couple of times before, if briefly.
- Result/What I Learned: we both published good books, and we're friends – we even managed to get together in Blerg City this summer. I learned that single topic, even with a relatively confined geography and time period, may have innumerable aspects to explore. This book forced me to think more deeply about what it really was that I had to say, and I think that, as a result, I wrote a more sharply defined book than I otherwise would have. I also learned that there's room for more than one of us in any single area – there are a lot of questions to ask.
Scenario #2 – The Next Big Thing: While dissertating, I stumbled upon a very interesting cache of documents about another topic that would allow me to build on what I had learned from the dissertation, while still being an obviously different project. A very sexy topic, mysteriously untouched. I published an article as a grad student, and included it in all job apps as "the next project." But I had to finish the diss-based book, so the Next Big Thing sat idle for 4 years – no publications, no presentations. And while I sat on my hands, an enterprising grad student picked up the topic and ran with it. By the time I was ready to work on it again, student had defended hir dissertation, based on records that I was planning to look at… someday.
- What I did: I dropped it, with the best grace I could muster. Sometimes, another person gets ahead of you so far that it would be impossible to catch up, and I didn't feel like wrestling for this one, for any number of reasons. If I had been further along, I might have done differently, but I wasn't, so I backed off, and started looking around for what to do next.
- Result/What I Learned: I'm on a different project, and the other person is working on turning the dissertation into hir first book. I've learned that you're not really "on" a topic unless you keep presenting and publishing on it. By walking away for 4 years, I passively renounced any claim I may have had, if such things can even be said to exist. It's not unthinkable that, when s/he publishes, hir book will be very different from the one I would have written. If that happens, then we're in Hundred Flowers territory again, and I may go back to it. But probably not. I've got several other (potentially more interesting) fish to fry at this point.
Scenario #3 – But if you try, sometimes you'll find you get what you need: Starting on the project I kind of fumbled my way into in the wake of The Next Big Thing, I thought I had a good idea, so off I went to the archives again. And then I found that there was junior person who had recently finished hir dissertation on a very similar topic. And also there was a team of people working on a similar topic in Blargistan, where even unintentionally stepping on the wrong set of toes can fuck your whole career. But by that time, I just didn't have the emotional fortitude (not to mention the time, since I was already in the archives) to go casting about yet again.
- What I did: I wrote this post. And then I wrote to the two people involved, explaining my interest in the topic. And then I kept working, trying not to panic, all the while using half of my brainpower to relentlessly flog the "How am I different?" question. I didn't know the answer, but with effort, I was able to coerce my topic into a new shape** by paying attention to what kinds of things were really drawing my attention and getting me excited in the archives, and what that might mean for the questions I really wanted to ask. And lo and behold, they turned out to be very different from what I thought they'd be, and (most importantly) very different from what those other people were working on.
- Results/What I Learned: Listen to your own brain, and be flexible. Getting scooped forced me to very quickly take my project in a radically different direction. And I'm glad, because it turns out that my original project would have required me to do a kind of research that is the complete opposite of the way I'm best at working, and thus would have been no fun for me at all (and I have this theory that books you don't enjoy invariably turn out crappy). This way, I'm playing to my interests and my strengths.
One last thing: Just because someone starts a project doesn't mean that they'll finish it, or publish it, or that it will be anywhere near as good as the one you're contemplating. In the end, you have to decide three things:
- How important is this project to me, either professionally or personally?
- Do I (or could I) have my own unique spin on the topic, something that makes my work obviously different from other approaches?
- If I decide to go ahead with the project, what are the steps I need to take to do so ethically, and to maintain good relations with my professional community?
Oh, and that really sweet trial transcript I dug out of the archives a few years ago? Yeah, I licked it. Just so you know.
**I just realized that this is exactly the approach that I took when writing proposals to revise my more or less aimless dissertation into a book: I pushed and pushed until I had an idea that was at least plausible, and then I shaped and polished it until it was something I could actually believe in. And it turned out pretty okay.