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As a student, I've read a lot of stories and Stack Exchange threads on scooping, and felt uneasy about it. People seem to believe that the first runner gets most of the credit while the group being scooped gets less credits. Research also shows that the paper being scooped receives less citations. In some scenarios, the scooping group rushed to finish their work first, thus leaving many mistakes in their paper.

My question is, in general, if the first paper (published on a top journal) contains many mistakes, can the second paper be published in a journal of similar tier? Will people question the originality of the second paper?

Note that the mistakes are not grammar mistakes or typos that everyone can see. Those are mathematical and technical mistakes that can only be found through lengthy works of professional researchers who are experts in this field.

Any stories or thoughts or experience will help! Any related scientometrics data helps too because data could be unbiased sources.


Related stories:

  1. In the controversy over the discovery of Haumea, the second team (Caltech) finally received more credit than the first team (a Spanish Team). The Caltech team announced their result a few hours after the Spanish team.

  2. In the field of mathematical economics, the result of Strong Axiom of Revealed Preference was published one year earlier than the result of General Axiom of Revealed Preference. The latter is only slightly more general than the former, but the latter finally claim more citations than the former.

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    Note that "a lot of stories and StackExchange threads on scooping" are just a tiny drop in the ocean of papers that are not scooped. For most people, scooping is a virtually nonexistent problem. Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 9:50
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    Anecdote: I'm a mathematician, and I've been "scooped" twice, in each case for some of my best results. What happened? My papers still got published in excellent journals, and they weren't totally redundant with the earlier papers. Even more importantly, the first group of "scoopers" became good friends and collaborators and I have joint papers and ongoing projects with them. Not everyone is as lucky as me -- but you probably won't be scooped, and even if you do it might turn out well. Best wishes to you.
    – academic
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 11:34
  • @academic Many thanks for your encouragement! May I ask if the earlier papers were published on better journals than yours?
    – High GPA
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 11:36
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    My pleasure. They were.
    – academic
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 12:11
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    @HighGPA I think what you're asking happens more often in natural sciences. I think the respective community acknowledges that and has a culture of acknowledging good work that appears independently. In engineering, it is quite rare, and usually happens when someone steals your idea/invention! Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 8:59

2 Answers 2

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For the most part, for a paper to be published in a reputable journal it needs to actually add something to the literature. If two scholars work in parallel on a problem then one is likely to get "scooped". But the journal is also responsible for quality of papers and so publishing things with fairly blatant errors should be rare for reputable journals that use a valid review process. The journal has little incentive to publish junk as its reputation is also on the line.

However, in a case in which a paper is published that contains serious errors it is a valid advance to write and publish a paper that points out those errors and corrects them. So, in the scenario you seem to be worried about, there is a path for the second paper. And if you mean "incorrect/invalid results" by "mistaken" then, yes, a paper with the correct result has a path.

However, in some cases, some non-obvious errors can also be easily corrected and many readers will make the corrections and assume that the overall result is valid. In such a case (and I've worked on such) a future paper might need to make additional advances beyond the original, while pointing out the earlier errors. Otherwise it might be seen as having too little "novelty".

Note that an author doesn't publish a paper alone. A journal publishes the paper with assistance of, hopefully, skilled reviewers. In the modern era, lots of "results" are made available on preprint servers prior to proper vetting. This is valued in math where results can lead to further results and so there is a push to make things known early. But people do well to maintain a skeptical attitude about such results until they get properly reviewed unless the reader wants to do the vetting themselves.

The result is that some (almost certainly) correct results are visible while some issues with proof need to be fixed. It is a two-edged sword, actually.

But, anyone working in a "hot" area of any field, needs to expect that others are working on the same or similar problems and so the likelihood of getting scooped in increased.

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  • Many thanks for your help Dr. Buffy. This is very detailed. I am very interested in the second case, where the error is non-obvious but serious. So in this case, the authors of the first paper will still claim novelty and originality for their idea, and the group being "scooped" can only claim the contribution for a "correction" and further developments?
    – High GPA
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 18:33
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    Hard to say. Details matter.
    – Buffy
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 18:37
  • Regarding the third-last paragraph: a few years ago I used to blindly believe the theoretical results deduced in top journals, but now I would say about one in twenty papers contain minor or major mistakes. Some authors are very serious about their paper so their paper and preprints are usually free of major mistakes. But for other authors, even their published work is not that trustable. Just my findings from my limited experience.
    – High GPA
    Commented Jan 28, 2022 at 1:52
  • @HighGPA That's true in general in my field (engineering). Moreover, many authors tend to follow other authors, including errors, and hence, the literature is littered with errors. Yes, there are certain author names that indicate quality, and a much better indicator than a journal brand/name or ranking. Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 18:57
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It is a dilemma indeed: salami slicing feels wrong and while you prepare that big definitive body of work on the subject, someone already publishes lesser results.

What helped me to navigate it the most was the insight from reading Hamming's "You and your research". Very basically, journal articles are typically not intended to be the Holy Bible on the subject - you can write a book about it later. In some cases, a "honorary" publication bringing your work together in a cohesive and holistic manner is in order. But the goal of publishing often is to get your findings to the world as quickly as possible to enable others to work on it and advance the science further. By publishing small results, you save others time and effort doing the same work - that makes them more "competitive", but at the core, we are not here to compete with each other, we are here to advance human knowledge.

That is not to say this noble goal is not overshadowed by strategizing and politics in research: it is fairly adversarial, and not everyone keeps that big goal in mind or thinks of it the same way.

At the end of the day, even if two papers are very similar, they both could be useful - if anything, as a validation/confirmation; often, both of them will get recognition if it is reasonable to think of them as independently produced.

Perhaps the most importantly, the career goals are not universal. Some find recognition important, some do not. There is a certain degree of it required to be able to do research in the first place, but even if someone scoops you, that does not necessarily mean you will get no funding whatsoever because you are clearly inferior. Thankfully, not many researchers are chiefly obsessed with their h-index or some other metric, most of us care about other, hard-to-quantify things.

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  • Very helpful answer. I used to think that I have to publish something very important and technically "correct" in every aspect. But now I think you are right that a journal article should not be a holy bible -- it could be just a small results to save others' time
    – High GPA
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 7:42

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