Case Three: Getting Scooped by a Reviewer

RCR Casebook: Peer Review

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Olga is a prolific young researcher working in a highly specialized area at the small university where she is junior faculty. Olga knows she has to publish a lot to get tenure, but she dislikes the “slice and dice” approach to publishing. Instead of submitting each little publishable part of her work, she is waiting until she has a significant set of studies which test a theoretical position and can then be published as a whole.

Similarly, the complex grant application she recently submitted is rich in sophisticated detail and designed to test an original theoretical position accompanied by a significant body of work.

When Olga hears from the federal funding agency, she is disappointed to see that not all the peer reviewers regarded her proposal favorably. One argued that it was trivial and of no importance to the field. The grant was not funded.

Olga quickly regroups. Since she has many well-trained students and some start-up funds, she decides to conduct the research without the grant funding. She feels impelled to conduct the research and publish the outcome because she is quite certain she knows who shafted her proposal—Philippe, a powerhouse in the world of grants and faculty clout who has a reputation for “bad-mouthing” the work of competitors at less prestigious institutions than his.

Within 18 months, Olga has completed the set of studies and is writing them up. In reviewing the most recent literature, however, she finds that her exact design and theory testing have just been published by someone else. Namely, Philippe, the very person she suspected of panning her grant proposal! If that isn’t painful enough, she also realizes that any work she now publishes will be regarded as derivative or unoriginal—and she might even be accused of stealing his work.

What should Olga do?

Discussion Questions for Facilitator

  • What are the rules for serving as a reviewer of grant proposals? How can those rules be enforced?
  • Should proposals be reviewed by people who do not work in your field?  Why or why not?
  • Can we ensure that reviewers do not gain an unfair advantage when conducting research and competing for funding when they get to read others researchers confidential and innovative proposals? If so, how?
  • Under what circumstances would you file a complaint? What are the pros and cons of reporting such theft as a form of misconduct? To whom should the complaint be reported?
  • Have you ever had anyone steal one of your research ideas? How did you deal with it, and what lessons did you learn?

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