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I am a young researcher, and recently, I find that the drive to publish and advance my career has created an unhealthy mindset. In particular, I find that when I have a good idea, I am worried that someone will have the same idea, carry out the analysis, and publish before I do. While this worry has greatly speeded up my research, sometimes I feel it is unhealthy, in that my work becomes more sloppy, my analysis is less careful, I check for errors less, and as a result I'm more prone to making mistakes. I think this is an undesirable outcome, because it can potentially reduce the quality of my research results.

However, the tradeoff is real - the more time one spends vetting one's results for accuracy and making improvements large or small, the later one publishes, and the risk of getting preempted is higher. Even if one is still able to publish, not being the first will reduce the impact of your publication.

I am interested in hearing what others think about this, and approaches to dealing with and think about this issue, to have a healthy mindset and research environment.

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    My impression after reading your question: you put too much emphasize on publish. That's why you have the fear. If you do research and publish after you have good research results, why would you fear somebody publish before you? (Research is your main concern). By the way, this question is very close to a polling question. You may want to edit it to make it less polling. – scaaahu Oct 29 '15 at 4:11
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    Obligatory PhD comic – ff524 Oct 29 '15 at 4:21
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    I haven't been to this site for so long - I just realized there is now an "emergency button"! – LCW Oct 29 '15 at 5:08
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    Howard Aiken once said: "Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you'll have to ram it down their throats" – Stylize Oct 29 '15 at 14:42
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    I share, to some extent, your concern. Fear is too strong of a word (it's just not politically correct if you care about such context). It happened to me. Twice. I see the "publish or perish" paradigm as detrimental to Academia as the dot com bubble was to the global economy. Reviewers often don't find the time to discriminate between two papers on the same topic, they'll refer one author to the work of the one who got there first. And when you also get a quota of publications required for PhD graduation, the situations is even more unsettling. – teodron Oct 29 '15 at 17:12
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I worked on a project during the summer and fall of 2014 that I never published. Someone else beat me to it, publishing a very good and very thorough paper that did everything I had thought to do and more.

Do I regret that time I spent on that project? Not at all. I learned some useful new methods that I have since been able to apply to other ideas. I have a much deeper understanding of this problem than I would have just from reading my competitor's paper, and I'm sure that will come in handy someday. I've taken my version of the idea in a totally different direction, and it's stronger for it.

I suggest you consider the potential consequences of being "scooped":

  • Maybe you'll read their work and discover that although it seems very similar, the details are fundamentally different. Great! You'll cite the work in your own paper. The fact that other people are paying attention to this area shows that it's relevant and helps motivate your paper. Also see: Scoopage

  • Maybe you'll read their work and discover that it actually does accomplish everything you set out to do. Now you get to be flexible and take your project in a different direction. After you've done some preliminary work in this new direction, get in touch with them and propose a collaboration, which is likely to make your own work even stronger.

Know that being scooped doesn't necessarily mean everything you have done is wasted. (This article has some more advice on moving on from being scooped.)

Also, there are steps you can take to help avoid being scooped (although you can't guarantee anything, of course):

  • Know your strengths. If you're working in a crowded area, what can you contribute that you already have some expertise in? If you can apply what you already have to something new and interesting, you're ahead of those people who don't already have that expertise.

  • Read a lot. Identify the people in your field who are doing similar work, talk to them at conferences, generally keep track of what they are working on, so that you're less likely to be caught off guard.

  • Be open about what you are working on: give talks, poster presentations, chat with people at conferences, etc. about your ongoing work. If everybody in your field knows "LCW is working on X," then people interested in X may come to you for collaboration instead of working independently. When you do publish (a careful, accurate, not-sloppy paper), everyone working in the area will know about it and will probably cite it in their own work.

These are measures that can help alleviate your anxiety and improve the quality of your research.

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    Thanks ff524 for this detailed answer! Another good approach I think is instead of being worried about being scooped, focus rather on generating new ideas - there is no shortage of problems! – LCW Oct 29 '15 at 5:06
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    Another advantage: You might notice they made a mistake in their paper, and you can help fix it using your own version. Also, these people might become potential co-authors for your future work. – Olorun Oct 29 '15 at 5:27
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In addition to the excellent answer by @ff524, you may want to look at the size of "publication unit" that you are trying to produce.

When a person is a perfectionist, as you describe yourself, it is sometimes the case that they will attempt to write "the one true paper" that ties everything on a topic up into a neat bundle. This tends to delay publication unnecessarily and exposes one to more danger of being scooped---but also, it's bad for one's research in general, since they aren't getting feedback from reviewers as they go.

Consider, instead, publishing early results, partial results, etc., in respectable but less "splashy" locations. In some fields, where there are peer-reviewed workshop and conference publications, the development of such results is explicitly supported, and papers can afterward be "upgraded" into a full journal version.

If you follow such a strategy, you are less likely to publish in Nature or Science, but more likely to build a solid record of good publications and also less likely to get scooped.

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  • Thanks for the great suggestion, @jakebeal. I'm sure your diagnosis is valid - sometimes I feel I am a perfectionist stuck in an imperfect body trying to do things perfectly in an imperfect world. Okay, I exaggerate. – LCW Nov 28 '15 at 22:28

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