When I was a postdoc, I used to make a Friday morning ritual of browsing through the latest issue of Science while drinking my coffee and listening to one of my favorite music podcasts. It was one of the highlights of my week, but that ritual has been long since buried by the simple fact that I just don't have time during the day to casually read through a whole journal.
But this morning, I tried. I didn't get all that far, however, because one item in the News of the Week section caught my attention and sent me looking around at other sources as well. Maybe I have just been oblivious to the subject of the article because it is not my game, but I nevertheless found the piece on Stephan Schuster getting "scooped" in his efforts to sequence the genomes of both the cacao tree and the Tasmanian devil. Why this article was so interesting is all in the nature of the scooping.
When I think of getting scooped, it means that another lab has published the major findings of something I am working on before my group was able to get the paper out. I don't think I am alone in that definition, though I haven't checked Urban Dictionary. Instead, Schuster was "scooped" because two other labs announced that they had sequenced these genomes. Uh, okay. So fucking what? According to the article, this is a devastating blow to Schuster's group, even though they have the cacao paper submitted and they are already analyzing the Tasmanian devil sequence. My guess is that they are significantly ahead of both rivals at this stage and will get their papers out first, so why is this a big deal? Science quotes Schuster as saying:
"With what happened yesterday, I don't believe in scientific publication anymore," says Schuster, who thinks work shouldn't be publicized until after peer review. "We tried to be a good citizen, ... and we lost."
You lost? What? Okay, okay, I can see how the initial big publicity would have been cool and all, but aside from a very small circle of people, who is going to remember which group made the announcement? No one. Most people will remember hearing that an announcement was made and then see the paper in a month or two and say "Hey, that chocolate genome is out. Cool." Schuster's group will get the citations and the other groups will be forced to publish their results in a less GlamorEleventy!!! journal and run all the comparative analysis. I guess I'm missing where Schuster "loses" here, unless this has more to do with the initial round of applause than anything else. In fact, they even get to be smug about how much further ahead they are:
The Penn State-CIRAD group sequenced the Criollo variety of cacao, assembling 76% of the cacao genome into its 10 chromosomes and placing 82% of the 28,798 genes along this DNA. "We were at the point of the [Mars-USDA] press release about 6 months ago," claims Guiltinan.
What also seems ridiculous to me is that there are TWO groups sequencing either of these genomes. I can understand the race for the human genome and maybe even things like fruit fly and Arabidopsis, but since when did the Tasmanian devil fan club go all cut throat? And I like chocolate as much as the next person, but two genome sequences*? It's hard to tell whether this is competition or lack of communication, but either way it seems like a giant FAIL to commit the duplicated resources. If it's the former it's just stupid and if the latter maybe it's time to think about a mechanism by which people could list what genomes are being sequenced (and not in a something-I-want-to-do-one-day-and-this-is-a-way-to-pee-on-it, kinda way. Things actually on the machine.).
We also see the whole making data public before it is analyzed thing raise it's head again.
While Schuster was fretting about his group's Tasmanian devil work being overshadowed, his colleagues working on the cacao genome were scrambling to prevent the same thing from happening to their project. The rival Mars-USDA collaboration announced that it had assembled the sequence and opened a Web site to provide other researchers access to the data.
It's one thing to have your own data released to the public right after assembly, but this is someone else's data from the same organism being put out there like a Vegas buffet. I can see this being an issue, but if you are way down the road on the analysis end, don't these announcements just light a fire to get the paper out ASAP? Statements like the one by Schuster above, might be warranted if the other groups published the data ahead of their group, but if anything, doesn't the announcement just add some buzz to the publication?
Let's wait for the papers before we start the pouting, no?
*BTW, the fact that Mars was a partner in the chocolate genome project (the second one) is something I find hilarious. Mmmmmm genom-nom-nom. Alright, maybe it's just me.