One of the things I miss most about research is reading scientific papers. I try to keep up with the literature, but there’s much less incentive when your entire career doesn’t depend on knowing what’s been published lately. I dutifully scan the tables of contents that arrive so frequently in my inbox, and I read at least the abstracts of the papers that show up in my weekly PubCrawler searches, but that’s about it.
Now that I’m no longer actively publishing my own papers, I get my kicks from other people citing my previous work. We scientists are not immune to vanity – in fact, given the pathetic salaries and dubious job security of most researchers, validation by our peers is often all we have left. My papers have been cited quite often, but usually only as one of several studies lumped in together to provide support for one of the authors’ minor assertions. The typical citation would be “this phenomenon has previously been observed in similar studies involving other genes (5-11)”, with my paper as reference #9.
I recently came across a paper by Lydia Mare and Marco Trinchera that did not fit this model. The authors based their entire study on two of my previous papers. In fact, the first two sentences of their abstract basically mirrored the major conclusions of the earlier of my two papers. This was enough to prompt me to read the new manuscript from start to finish, a first since I left the lab.
The contents of the introduction and methods sections also seemed very familiar. The introduction described much of my work in more detail than the abstract, and many of the methods used were very similar to my own. In fact, reading the paper almost gave me a sense of déjà vu. Given more time and funding I could easily imagine myself carrying out the very same experiments.
The questions asked by these unknown but methodologically familiar researchers were obviously prompted by the gaps in my original study. The answers to those questions were more or less consistent with my own findings and predictions. There was a sense almost of relief – despite my confidence in the accuracy of my own papers, science depends on the independent verification and replication of previous results, and my work has now passed its first true test of this kind. Even the one result from my first paper that could not be replicated in this new study can be easily explained away by differences in experimental approach. I would like to express my gratitude that the authors apparently agreed with this opinion!
Overall, the paper I read in such detail today confirmed and reinforced my own work. The sense of validation I feel is tempered by a little jealousy that I didn’t get to perform and report this work myself. I wonder if these authors thought about the possibility that someone from my former lab was still working on this project, and that they might be scooped before publication. I came very close to being scooped myself once and I can clearly remember the feelings of panic and nausea that I experienced before my paper was eventually accepted. I’m very grateful that the fear of being scooped by a lab with a potential head start on the same project did not prevent this work from being carried out. Not only do I have one more citation to add to my growing list, but I got to read another part of the story to which I once contributed. These stories never end, but hopefully I will get to read some further chapters from my desk on the dark side.