I graduated my undergrad two years ago, and I have since published 4 papers in top computer science conferences and journals. However, all my papers seem to follow a common "scooping" pattern, where I would read an interesting paper, notice some possible improvements/speed ups in the algorithm published, type up the improvement, and submit it. This seems to have worked well for me so far.

I am planning to apply to graduate school, however, an old colleague in my research lab told me some graduate school admission committees might raise an eye brow at my research, since they all seem to "scoop" other researchers work, and not come up with new/original research directions.

My question is, how truthful is this? I feel what I have done should be considered original research, and not "scooping", as the original authors did not allude in the slightest (either in the paper or on online mediums like arxiv/twitter) that they were pursuing this problem further.

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    Apart from the issue with the word "scooping" (see Morgan Rodger's answer), you also might be under-selling your own contribution. Unless your improvements came from really marginal implementation details (like using a different version of some underlying software library), you probably have added something of value to the earlier algorithm, and should focus in your self-presentation on that something. – lighthouse keeper Dec 26 '20 at 9:47
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    "If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants" - Isaac Newton – jamesqf Dec 26 '20 at 17:23
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    You should change your question to: Is incremental research frown upon by the community? This is OK if you are a new graduate student. However, I would look at a researcher more favorably if he/she addresses a novel research question/aim. This shows he/she is creative, and can think far ahead of the state-of-the-art. This can also imply that he/she has a new set of tools that do not exist in the community. – Prof. Santa Claus Dec 26 '20 at 21:57
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    I don't know CS - but even four incremental papers of this style are at least above average, if not in the top quarter or higher of grad applicants. – Azor Ahai -him- Dec 27 '20 at 5:25
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    To emphasize the point: this is not scooping. – qwr Dec 27 '20 at 8:36

What you describe isn't "scooping". Scooping is where you publish something that someone else is currently working on before they are able to publish it. Usually this is done without knowing someone else is working on it, and is something that happens to you (you were scooped), and not usually used to describe action of the publishing author (unless they did it intentionally).

The issue with your research is that, if this is your only work, it could be seen to lack novelty; it is only incrementally building on other peoples' results. That would possibly be weighed negatively in grant applications, etc.

In other words, I think that your research could hypothetically be viewed as not especially notable if you were applying for postdoc or faculty positions (I haven't seen it, and you say it was published in top journals, so this isn't necessarily the case). But

  1. I wouldn't call this "scooping" and
  2. I don't think this should be an issue applying for graduate school. Having publications will only be seen as a positive thing, and if they are in top journals that will look very good. No one is expecting an undergraduate to be be publishing novel research as a condition to attend graduate school.
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    Adding to this answer a bit: The proper word for this is probably "epigonal", and it is definitely not a cause of concern in an undergrad's work. Even the typical PhD thesis is mostly epigonal. It will eventually be a problem if by your PhD, all of your work to date is epigonal and there is no hint of novel methods and ideas. – darij grinberg Dec 26 '20 at 13:28
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    Hmmm, @darijgrinberg, maybe not epigonal. – Buffy Dec 26 '20 at 13:50
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    @MassimoOrtolano, in which case the word definitely does not apply. The OP is not an imitator (inferior or otherwise) or a disciple, but an "extender". In some sense Einstein extends Newton. – Buffy Dec 26 '20 at 15:53
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    @Buffy: Ouch, that was a false friend I was completely unaware of! The German "epigonal" is closer to the meaning Massimo found, except I haven't seen it mean "inferior imitation" as much as just "the same idea but performed better" (this is, at least, what the word should mean -- it was the epigones, after all, that got into Thebes). – darij grinberg Dec 26 '20 at 20:52
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    @darijgrinberg Why not "incremental"? That seems to be the usual descriptor. – user76284 Dec 26 '20 at 23:13

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