The Game Theory of Scooping Grad Students

by Erica Holdridge

Hand Stealing Idea Light Bulb From Head

The first two or three years of graduate school are some of the most exciting and stressful times in an academic career. In the best moments, you’re learning a lot of new information, reading broadly, and forming valuable relationships with colleagues that provide immediate and long-term benefits. In the worst, you’re bogged down trying to get coursework and qualifying out of the way, probably dealing with a serious case of imposter syndrome and wrestling with the biggest question of them all: what the heck is my dissertation going to be? The result is usually a very enthusiastic, anxious young scientist with a lot of big ideas and little time to do much about them in the way of actual research and publications.

At the same time, you’re usually advised to get as much feedback from as many people as you can in order to fine tune your ideas. You often present these ideas at lab meetings or informal department seminars (“brown bags”, “brown bottles”, etc.) and symposia to gather feedback from professors and other graduate students. You may even present a poster about your ideas at a conference to seek a wider audience. This is an important part of the scientific process, not just for graduate students but scientists at all stages of their career. It helps us think more clearly about our ideas, brings pitfalls to light that we would otherwise have missed and, ultimately leads us to do better science.

This time of momentum building as you gather ideas and complete requirements so that you can finally do research and get publications out is a very vulnerable time. We trust that the people we are gathering feedback from are ethical participants in the scientific process that want to see early career scientists prosper. That is how science moves forward, right? In general, I think that is true. But if game theory has taught us anything, it’s that, under the right conditions, cheater strategies can evolve. The reason is simple: under the right conditions cheaters have high fitness, measurable by their reproductive output or, maybe in this case, their publications rates.

What conditions allow for cheaters to thrive? Maynard Smith and Price (1973) showed that ruthless “hawk” strategies will evolve if (1) attacks from hawks are likely to result in serious injury or (2) when a single event determines one’s entire reproductive (or academic) success. Fortunately for us, the latter is unlikely to be true in academia. Even if it seems like the end of your career at the time when you get scooped, ideas are relatively cheap. Rest assured, you will be onto bigger and better things before you know it. The former, however, is more likely to be true, especially for graduate students who have not made a name for themselves in the field yet. One big idea that lands your paper in Science or Nature is a great launching point for your career. It makes your publication record stand out in the pile of applications for postdocs and fellowships. So, the hit that your career might take from having that idea scooped is potentially very big.

You open an email from Journal You Would Like To Submit To and see a new article titled “A Lot Like The Thing You’re Working On”. The first thing to ask yourself is “Have I really been scooped?”. Read the paper thoroughly then think about how your ideas/approach/results are similar and different. More often than not, you’ll find that the answer is “no”, your work is actually quite different and still very much publishable. In the rare event that this is not the case, there are two further possibilities. In most cases, getting scooped is just an honest case of convergent ideas. Especially when topics are hot, many people will be publishing on those ideas and it ends up being a race to see who can get their paper out first. The outcome is the same but you can at least feel better knowing that there were not malicious intentions. However, there are cases when ethically questionable circumstances lead to an idea being stolen. Graduate students seem to be particularly vulnerable to these situations because we are putting a lot of unpublished ideas out into the world in order to get feedback, but experience a lag between the feedback-seeking stage and the publication stage due to other obligations (classes, fellowship applications, TA-ships, qualifying exams, and so on). Hawks receive the greatest payoff when they encounter a mouse and it’s safe to say that the power dynamics in academia make most graduate students quite mousey.

The good news is that Maynard Smith and Price tell us that hawks should be rare, kept in check by the most common strategy which is retaliation (so don’t go picking fights!). Although they do exist and it’s a headache when you encounter one, you shouldn’t spend your career worrying about sharing your ideas because the crowd might be stacked with hawks. The benefits of receiving feedback about your work far outweigh the potential costs. Still, I’m curious to see how many people have worried about sharing their ideas or have had their ideas scooped by some less-than-ethical means. Are hawks really as rare as game theory tells us they should be? Share your thoughts and experiences on Twitter with @rapidecology.

Author biography: Erica Holdridge is a PhD candidate in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Yale University interested in competition theory. You can tweet her @eholdridge.

Image credit: Stealing ideas, from Bath Alchemy Lab,

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