A 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] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18836209) 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, http://www.aopc.es/abst/obtimpres.php?idAbst=1812), 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.