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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. Dec 26, 2020 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, 2020 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. Dec 26, 2020 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. Dec 27, 2020 at 5:25
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    To emphasize the point: this is not scooping.
    – qwr
    Dec 27, 2020 at 8:36

1 Answer 1

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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. Dec 26, 2020 at 13:28
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    Hmmm, @darijgrinberg, maybe not epigonal.
    – Buffy
    Dec 26, 2020 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, 2020 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). Dec 26, 2020 at 20:52
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    @darijgrinberg Why not "incremental"? That seems to be the usual descriptor.
    – user76284
    Dec 26, 2020 at 23:13

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