Publishing Priority Punchdown at PLoS ONE

Dec 18 2008 Published by under Conduct of Science

boxing_squirrel.jpgA fascinating discussion point has arisen in the context of discussing a recent paper in PLoS ONE.
Wang X, Sun Q, McGrath SD, Mardis ER, Soloway PD, et al. (2008) Transcriptome-Wide Identification of Novel Imprinted Genes in Neonatal Mouse Brain. PLoS ONE 3(12): e3839. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003839
The comment thread is, as of this writing, populated primarily by one contributor with responses by the senior author. My eye was drawn to a comment exchange that focused on issues of crediting other work and publication priority.

For the record I endorse the notion that scientists who publish an observation about the state of nature first deserve some special credit on this basis alone. I am also quite convinced that the deification of the first report has led to some significant problems for modern science. Scooping, unethical reviewing and under crediting the efforts of those who came in second are detrimental to individuals, which is bad. But the race to be first can encourage cheating and faking and blocking of grants in a way that is corrosive to the entire enterprise.
With respect to the Wang et al. paper, a comment suggests a missed citation of prior work.

Schulz et al. (Hum Mol Genet. 2008 Oct 4. [Epub ahead of print] published their findings (imprinting of Blcap in mouse and human brain) two months prior to the publication of this work.

Perhaps a bit petty? Especially since one cannot help but assume that the PLoS ONE commenter, rschulz, may in fact be the first author of the mentioned paper, one Schulz, R. And for those of us not involved in this field we really cannot make any call on the merits, other than to note that sometimes when the publication dates are very close, we do not expect that the publication timeline necessarily permits inclusion of every paper that appears right up to the minute before the later paper is published.
Nevertheless the suspicious among us might anticipate a tediously familiar story. The senior author of Wang et al responds:

Just to be clear about the timing, we presented a poster on this work at the Cold Spring Harbor Biology of Genomes meeting on May 5-6, 2008 with the names of the novel imprinted genes we discovered, including Blcap. On June 8, 2008, we presented our results (with Blcap clearly identified) in a plenary session of the SMBE meeting in Barcelona (See abstract here,, where we also discussed the results with a member of the Oakey lab. We submitted our manuscript to Nature in May 2008, and Schulz et al. was received at Hum. Mol. Genet. on June 25, 2008.

HAHAHA! The battle is indeed a familiar one. Nobody from the outside is ever going to know exactly what went on, who knew what when, who got which ideas from where, etc. But believe you me, every conceivable scenario goes on all the bloody time in competitive bioscience these days. Two (or more) groups working on the same thing and being ready to publish more or less within weeks of each other. People receiving a manuscript to review, sitting on it or quashing it, only to put their team of 20 postdocs on similar work and rushing out a competing paper. And everything in between.
To back off a bit, let's see how this example reads to the disinterested observer.
It looks to me that the senior author, PLoS commenter andrewclark, is claiming that the "Oakey lab" to which rschulz/Schulz, R apparently belongs, do not deserve any undue credit as their paper on the topic was submitted after the Clark group had already been discussing their work and indeed submitted a manuscript to a top GlamourMag journal. It is also a subtext that they may be insinuating the worst of the worst. Namely that the Oakey lab in fact leveraged the Clark lab findings to accelerate their submission to Hum Mol Genet. It would be more or less aboveboard, in my view, if the Oakey lab in fact did this based on public presentations from the Clark group. Not so much if they got wind of the actual manuscript submitted to Nature in some way.
I think commenter rschulz got an impression (as did I) that there was a bit of an accusation of underhandedness in the reply:

Neither the Oakey group nor any of the co-authors of Schulz et al. had any knowledge of the presentation at the meeting on May 5-8, 2008. It is true that a member of the Oakey group witnessed the presentation on June 8, 2008. ...It is necessary to counteract the impression potentially being created here that the Oakey lab took advantage of the presented unpublished results on Blcap: The microarray experiment that is the basis of the above Schulz et al. paper was completed on May 10, 2007. The allele-specific SNP-based sequencing assay confirming Blcap imprinting in mouse brain (Fig. 2A in Schulz et al.) was completed on May 24, 2007. ... The presentation on June 8, 2008, did not reveal anything new about the imprinting of Blcap to the Oakey lab. At that time, the manuscript of Schulz et al. was essentially complete (is was submitted on Jun 25, 2008).
None of the members of the Oakey lab reviewed that submission, and if any of the other co-authors of Schulz et al. did, they kept it confidential, ie, did not inform the Oakey lab about it

And this points out one of the flaws with this micro-managing of priority, particularly when very high profile journals take this as a decision criterion for acceptance. In the vast majority of apparent scooping cases, if there is only a few months between one group revealing their data and another group revealing similar stuff, the realities of conducting research means it is improbable that it was a straight-up plagiarizing copy of the entire work. Where it gets sticky is when one key (short term) experiment has been added, sometimes in a way that looks disturbingly, well, tacked on. Of course you have to know the field very well to evaluate this. In many cases, however, the groups were indeed working independently on the same problem or issue. Why should one group get credit and the other be shut out just because they differed by a few weeks? It's scientifically absurd. And yet that's the current reality.
This is why people are fighting so hard, seemingly to absurd lengths, to establish that they had the idea or demonstration first. Suggestions that a failure to cite prior work is stealing intellectual property and is "damaging" to the scientists involved seem overblown but there is an underlying truth here. The perception of the priority of scientists' scientific accomplishments dictates who gets the job, who gets tenure, who gets the grant and, ultimately, who gets the Nobel prize. It matters.
I do take particular exception to one set of comments from rschulz:

As for the timeline regarding Blcap: it is every research group's prerogative to present unpublished results at meetings. However, unless these results have withstood the test of peer review, they are preliminary....The submission of your manuscript to Nature in May 2008 is irrelevant since it was apparently rejected.

This is absolutely irrelevant to the two issues at hand. First, did one lab get ideas from the other that were critical to the development of their paper? Who cares whether it was "preliminary" or whether a manuscript was rejected or not? The idea was there. Second, who should get priority credit. Again, absolutely corrosive to hold up the fact that one lab got their paper accepted first as if the work of the prior lab is "irrelevant". Absolutely asinine to say this. And for me, at least, it really does question the motives of the rschulz comments to the Wang et al. paper. This kind of jackholery suggests that rschulz is not merely trying to promote his/her own paper but is rather trying to assert priority credit on the type of thin technicality that I find to be absurd.

16 responses so far

  • I posted this comment on SG's post, but I may as well throw it down here as well:
    A related thing happened to Comrade PhysioProf earlier in his career. We published a paper in a C/N/S journal that described application of a novel technique in a particular model organism, and the results we obtained contradicted then-current dogma relating to a particular physiological process, and did so in a very interesting way.
    We really just stumbled into this particular discovery, as we were at first engaged in a tool development exercise, invented a hammer, and the specific nail we hit was fortuitous. Thus, we were complete newcomers to the study of this physiological process. Because of our ignorance, we were completely unaware that there was am earlier literature out there had been attempting to establish a particular cellular/molecular mechanism for this particular physiological process in organisms other than the one we were working in.
    As a historical matter, the vast array of studies supporting the then-current dogma was perceived as contradicting the earlier literature, and the mechanism proposed in that earlier literature was abandoned. It turned out that our paper supported the viability of that abandoned model, which we didn't even know existed. So we wrote our paper without any of this historical context, and without any citations to that work. And none of the reviewers of the paper caught this, probably because (1) the older model had been abandoned and (2) the reviewers were probably most familiar with the work done on our model organism, and not the ones that the older studies had been performed on.
    I only discovered all of this when I read a News&Views written about our paper that provided the historical context that we missed. In horror, I immediately sent e-mails to some of the major players in that older body of work apologizing for our failure to cite their work and explaining that it was purely out of ignorance and that I was completely new to the field. The awesome thing is that these very senior figures in our field have become tremendous career supporters of mine, writing me letters, inviting me to speak at conferences, and otherwise encouraging and supporting my entry into their field and career advancement.
    It sounds like this Chen et al. situation is different, in that Axelrod didn't stumble into the Drosophila PCP field, and that he should have known what was going on. Is it possible that Axelrod's trainee who wrote the paper, Chen, was given so much leeway that Axelrod didn't even know what was really in the paper, and that Chen was genuinely ignorant of the Lawrence studies?
    DoucheMonkey, you said this:
    You provided evidence, many years later, that their stuff was right all along....and they think you are da bomb? No wai!!!!!
    The point is that they could have been angry that I didn't cite their work and give them due priority for the idea.

  • Notme says:

    Karl Deisseroth ('Mr. Optogenetics') at Stanford is an interesting example. He rose to fame taking credit for a humble German guy's relatively obscure work on light-gated channels & pumps. I thought Deisseroth was just an asshole who didn't give credit where it was due, but it turned out Deisseroth apparently honestly didn't know where the stuff that launched his recent career came from. So he is a moron, but as long as he continues doing good work with the tools, I think people will forgive him.

  • bill says:

    Absolutely agree with your last sentence there, DM.
    Regardless of Schulz' actual level of douchebaggery, he/she should be aware that when entering into such a fraught discussion as this one, it's more important than ever to stick to the facts and stay calm. (Easier said than done, I know.)

  • pinus says:

    I wonder what happens when Schulz's PI sees the stuff he is spewing all over the web? Will he be pissed? happy? indifferent?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    DM, first I agree with your positions on the main issues raised in the PLoS One's discussion. Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science also commented in a post on a similar case in Cell.
    I had an eerily similar story to the one told by CPP. The difference was that all the references that were never cited, either by those who held the prevailing dogma at the time or by our own group, were very old papers that the whole field completely ignored, especially since their findings were in disagreement with the prevailing dogma. My group's findings were in agreement with the old papers' findings, but we had no reason to search the literature that far back, since we relied on the massive body of literature published by the dogma holders. Only after I have done a manual literature search in the basement of our library in preparation for a review-hypothesis paper, browsing through very old volumes of Biochem. J., J. Biol. Chem. and others from the 1920s and 1930s, I discovered a throve of fantastic papers that includes similar findings to ours (alas, using much cruder methodologies and techniques). Unfortunately, I could contact none of the authors of said papers,all already deceased fro many years. I could only present their work, cite it and discuss it in my review. These great past scientists did not get their due respect and recognition until long after they passed away, since a large group of their contemporary scientists never bothered to perform a thorough literature search.

  • Lamar says:

    it fell from Nature to PLoS ONE?

  • Matthew says:

    I don't know what anyone hopes to accomplish by hashing out an all out comment brawl. What's the purpose? If I were in that field, then I would appreciate knowing of a similar publication, but I think any further complaining is just going to reflect poorly on one's reputation.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Dude, if you are going to think that anything that some nutter hopes can get into Nature but gets rejected as having "fallen from Nature"....
    but in any case, how do you know that the PLoS ONE submission wasn't a response to a suspicion that a competitor was going to scoop the paper and a desire to get it into press quickly instead of fencing with some other GlamourMag?

  • bill says:

    Lamar: that's an upgrade, not a fall. So say the Nozdrul. (Ask DM.)

  • nm says:

    This looks more like a genuine case of genuine simultaneous publication/submission to me. It's not like there is a clear many month gap here.
    As for all the conference stuff. The amount of rubbish that gets aired at conferences and never again sees the light of day is rather astounding (at least in my humble experience of my field). Personally I don't count it until it's published properly. And if you haven't got it to a publishable state and your talking about it at a conference then it's your own fault if you get beaten into print by other groups doing the same work.
    I try to have everything I talk about at a conference either submitted already or ready to go the day I get home with some useful additional comments from the audience. There can be an enormous lag between abstract submission and the conference. Surely you can use that time to try and get the paper accepted?

  • kevin. says:

    I think it's a bit silly to ask for a reference of your paper if it was E-published a mere month ago. Manuscripts aren't revised based on daily PubMed searches--even a note added in Proof.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    nm, if this is the all seriousness why do you bother presenting data at conferences at all? The whole point, for me, is that the presentations should be enriched in stuff that will not see the light of publication in presented form. The goal is to get feedback from your peers before submitting to a journal and hearing the exact same observation that you need a different set of controls or those three extra experiments.

  • pinus says:

    On projects that are more competitive, I don't show it until it is almost accepted. I have been burned before, badly.
    However, in my perfect world, I present preliminary stuff and get great feedback from peers.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I don't know what anyone hopes to accomplish by hashing out an all out comment brawl. What's the purpose? If I were in that field, then I would appreciate knowing of a similar publication, but I think any further complaining is just going to reflect poorly on one's reputation.
    This situation and the Cell paper thing have the potential to be a coming trend. It is very obvious to me that real and tangible harm to career and therefore pocketbook can be caused by academic priority and subjective quality shenanigans. You have only to refer to the cases in which someone or other is considered to have been hosed out of Nobel recognition to see what I mean. At the lower and internal level of the larger, more competitive labs, the postdoc who pulls all kinds of nasty shenanigans on his/her peers to get the most CNS first-authorships gets the job offer. In between there are all kinds of scenarios where someone gets/does not get the grant or job over perceptions of credit for priority and scientific brilliance.
    The potential does not mean that we can very easily assess harm in any given case of a failure to cite one paper. But for me it explains why people are motivated to complain about stuff that seems petty and run-of-the-mill in our field.

  • James F says:

    Kevin @11:
    Not only that, look at what they have in the acknowledgments:
    "While in review, it came to our attention that Schulz et al., (2008 Hum. Mol. Genet., advanced electronic pub.) confirmed the imprinting status of Blcap in mouse brain."
    This is standard procedure, plus PLoS ONE's format lets Schulz post a whole list of comments. Similarly, PNAS now has a letters section that allows readers to raise concerns about papers and the authors to reply. It effectively formalizes post-publication peer review. I'd have to read the papers carefully to see if further action is warranted, but certainly the Schulz paper wasn't completely ignored.

  • Matthew says:

    The potential does not mean that we can very easily assess harm in any given case of a failure to cite one paper. But for me it explains why people are motivated to complain about stuff that seems petty and run-of-the-mill in our field.
    I understand why they are complaining. I'm sure I would feel the same way if I were in that situation (and I have been) and I would want to complain. I just don't understand what they hope to accomplish by fussing in a comment thread. If they want to submit a formal complaint and accusation, then that's one thing. Whining on a forum will not accomplish anything other than to tarnish their own reputation. That's a good way to not get the next job.

Leave a Reply