This morning, by way of Google Scholar alerts, I found out that we’d almost sorta got scooped.


I work on roughly four loosely connected topics, and a group that works on one of them (and only that one) published a paper that presents an alternative approach to ours. It’s less rigorous, it has similar numerical requirements, and I think they might get in trouble if some of the physical constraints are broken (see lack of rigor), but overall it’s a contender for the same type of stuff we do.

I was a bit ruffled for about 45 min, i.e., the duration of my kickboxing class this morning. But then I got coffee, did some work, did some non-work-related writing, and soon enough I was thinking “Whatevs.”

When novel contributions in a field become infinitesimally different from one another, so you have to bend over backwards and stomp on your colleague’s work to claim novelty, it’s time to move on, into a field that’s newer, less mature, and not saturated yet. Where there’s time to think and breathe, and not rush to publication.

Haha! This is my summer brain talking; there are no such fields. Immature yet promising fields are the dragonflies of science — fragile, with a short life span, and born around festering swamps.

Maybe what I am thinking of instead are the fields that are so mature — elderly, to be honest — that only the super-hard problems are left, so if you successfully tackle one of them, you can rejuvenate the whole field. There is definitely no rush there, but alas, no grant funding either.

Welcome to the fall season of proposal writing!



  1. This is brilliant. Love the dragonfly/swamp metaphor. I confess I felt a lump in my throat as I started reading about when to move on because… yeah, I don’t know of a field that doesn’t feel saturated in *some* way. I kind of found one once, but I couldn’t get enough trainees interested to do much. Now it is more crowded. The PIs are pretty good at communicating with each other about what each lab is working on, but still, arXiv makes me gasp now and then.

  2. Very poignant and very good timing, Today, I’ve had a similar experience after a discussion with my grad student about what makes a sub field hot or cold. A new CNS paper is in an area no one was working on 5-10 years ago, depends on my terminology and major findings, and used my expertise directly and extensively, mostly with only grudging or no attribution. I have collaborated with the authors on related and unrelated things, and yet I’m only in the acknowledgements because “more authors weren’t allowed” by their senior authors, and they were just “venting and thinking aloud” after much assistance. I think they didn’t want me to see the extent of overlap. It also would have diminished the novelty for them.

    This motivation seems really pervasive in my field – buried citations and/or willful misinterpretations of the work that motivated the study are common, if previous work is acknowledged at all!

    Fortunately, I do have other things going, but it still hurts (as an early career person).

  3. I love this post. I have been there too–scooped-ish, upset about it, then whatevs. We were able to publish anyway, since even scooped-ish doesn’t mean your work doesn’t have its novel aspects. This obsession with novelty is corrosive in my opinion, and sucks the fun out. I don’t like working in very crowded areas for this main reason.

    ProdigalAdvisor used to tell us to look back 15-20 years in the literature for interesting problems that will be hot again as modern methods are applied to them. This advice is actually pretty good, and I’ve found it a good source of interesting problems to move in to at times.

    And now back to it, for proposal season!

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