Monday, July 4, 2011

Getting Scooped (a longish post)

This post is dedicated to the all-too-appropriately named writing group participant What Now?, who is trying to figure out what to do now that she may have been scooped. It's also dedicated to R, M, and A, the three people I reference in this post who scooped me at one time or another… thereby leading my work in directions that I might not have known to take it on my own.

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:
  1. How important is this project to me, either professionally or personally?
  2. Do I (or could I) have my own unique spin on the topic, something that makes my work obviously different from other approaches?
  3. 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?

That's it.

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.

Completely unrelated photo (by request for Squadratomagico): Cloister Cats!
Now with bonus kitteh!

**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.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yes to all of this. And especially if we are not working at R1s/Russell Groups/whatever your super-prestigious research uni equivalents are. It's going to happen. I want to write a book on X. People know this. But other things come up, and at this point, my real goal is to get lots of little things published while finding and defining the Next Big Thing. One of the advantages of working so slowly is that it allows me to constantly re-frame what I want to work on, and see gaps.

Having said that, I am always relieved when someone tells me that I need to read X's work on the subject before going there, and find that it is not exactly what I want to do. On the other hand, sometimes I do worry that that is because I tend to want to really push the bounds of what we can do with different sorts of documentary evidence, and people may think I'm a bit mad!

Comrade PhysioProf said...

These are very good suggestions. I think the bottom line is that almost all the time, once you look a little more closely at the situation, there is more room for you to operate than it first appears in the heat of "ZOMFG! I'VE BEEN FUCKEN SCOOPED!!!111!!1!!1!!"

I will say, however, that in the sciences there is a greater chance for genuinely being flat-out scooped in arriving at a very specific tangible discovery. When this happens, it can adversely impact careers, especially of more junior people who--instead of a paper in a renowned high-impact journal that represents the route to grants, jobs, etc--end up with a much less impressive paper that doesn't represent much of anything other than the fact of being scooped.

Janice said...

A few years ago, I entered into correspondence with a doctoral student. It turned out that we were both working on a very much related topic. Student was somewhat panicky that my article in progress would spell end for student's dissertation hopes.

In the end, I chose not to tackle the extensive revise/resubmit I received on said article so I could assure student that the dissertation was 'safe'. I don't really regret it since the article was just wrapping up an interesting sideline for my part but it would have cut the heart out of this graduate student's work (especially in the eyes of the supervisor).

Comrade PhysioProf said...

In the end, I chose not to tackle the extensive revise/resubmit I received on said article so I could assure student that the dissertation was 'safe'.

Interesting. I would have never in a million years done something like that, if I had already devoted time, effort, and personnel to the project. And I don't think any other natural scientist would, either.

squadratomagico said...

I tend to be of the opinion that there usually is room for more than one approach to a single topic. On the other hand, I understand the anxiety beforehand: this did sort of happen to me with my first book. I already had written my dissertation on, and was committed to expanding, a particular question, when I discovered that another scholar, senior to me, also had begun working on the topic. S/he started on the topic after me, but apparently was rather upset to discover that I was pursuing that line of research, for s/he threw a few obstacles my way, early in my career. (I blogged about this once, under the title "My nemesis" -- there was some definite sabotage and obnoxious behavior, which I think is a case study in what *not to do in these cases. ) S/he was more anxious about the whole situation than I was, despite the fact that s/he was already a known scholar with several publications, and I was a piddly grad. student / recent PhD.

Anyway, long story short: My book came out before hirs, so I guess in the end you could say I scooped hir -- except I was on to the topic first, so it's sort of a wash. And honestly, though there is some overlap in terms of our respective source bases, there is also considerable divergence of sources and *very* different arguments /analytic approaches. I think mine has been the more successful of those two books, but s/he is still more senior and more published than I, so hir reputation has remained bigger and better than mine in the long run.

And thanks for the kitten!!!! She's lovely!

squadratomagico said...

For those who are interested, here is my "scoop" story.

TriPartite Academic said...

Great post, Notorious! I particularly like your explication of the various scenarios. I have always subscribed to the notion that two people can work on the same topic, provided their questions, conceptual approach, etc. are different. I have a colleague, though, whose research has been paralyzed by her very narrow notions of getting scooped. It's really unfortunate, because she's quite talented and her research agenda has completely stalled (though I will say that I wonder whether or not "getting scooped" has become a kind of defense mechanism for why she hasn't made more progress post-tenure).

Anonymous said...

I think I've been the scooper, which given the time it takes me to finish things is quite an achievement. But the relevant person is civil to me and we have worked out, more or less in consensus, where our respective areas of interest are and defer to each other in them. We also had an agreement to savage each other in print so as to get up interest in each other's work but that hasn't really happened, probably for the best. Ironically, I now find myself needing to read their stuff before I get serious with the thing I'm currently writing, because I suspect they will have covered it in their thesis...

I have also had the Hundred Flowers thing, in a completely different field to my usual one. Because of that, my work in it moves very slowly, and someone else I came up at the same time as has now published about half of my idea. This, however, means (a) I don't have to write that half (which would obviously be less of an advantage if I had already done so) and (b) I know much more clearly what I do have to write about, which is useful. So, OK, fifty flowers maybe but it's still a help; it feels more like I'm contributing now, too, whereas before it was a bit of a take-down. If I have allies, so much the better!

What Now? said...

Notorious, thank you so much for this great post! I read it when you first published it and have been meditating on it ever since. Your three scenarios have given me a helpful map for locating my own situation and response, which I've now blogged about. The short version is that I'm in the land of Scenario #2: The Next Big Thing; I'm going to gracefully concede the field to Friendly Rival and move on to something else, and I'm actually feeling fine about that decision, which clears the way for me to move on to new and potentially more interesting projects.

starbellysneetch said...

Great post. I saved it for future reference.