Bora Zivkovic over at ScienceBlogs posted about a scooping story that was just published in Nature. The story itself is quite scandalous, since the individual in question doesn't have a great reputation as far as I could tell from reading various comments on blogs posting on the subject. Go see some of them at ScienceBlogs to get an idea. What I want to address in this post has to do with Bora's commentary on the story, since he suggests that in an Open Science world, scooping would be much more difficult to pull off, since everything is documented and associated with time stamps, and the community can rally behind the "first to blog". I'm not sure the picture is that simple.
Something that I did not fully appreciate before about scooping is that the "scooper" will claim that the discovery was made independently, which is difficult to disprove in many fields. Paleontology and archeology may have very slight advantage here in that some types of discoveries are singular and tangible - a fossil in the desert, artifacts under a dirt mound - physical things at physical locations. Someone would be hard-pressed to say they were at the same place someone else was, digging up the same object (though, as the aetosaur controversy makes clear, scooping of a related sort can still happen). In biology, you might slave away for years to discover that protein A regulates protein B, but if someone else publishes it first, you're out of luck. Sure, you have the reagents and the cell lines and the protein products - but so do your competitors, as long as they have the basic equipment and resources in place to reproduce what you did. So the fear that making your research public would increase your risk of getting scooped maybe is not that unfounded. Closed scientists could easily leech off the hard work of Open scientists with no one being able to prove anything.
Of course, that is an extremely pessimistic view, but unfortunately, it's a kneejerk reaction from many people in biomedical fields. Until Open Science becomes so widespread that anything Closed is viewed with suspicion, there will be the possibility of exploitation. And that statement itself smacks highly of Big Brother. I don't think we want a "tryanny of Openness" any more than we want scooping to happen. My conclusions from this rather sobering train of thought are that yes, scooping is a moral outrage and the fact that it is an issue is frustrating, but because it does happen, we need to think carefully about how to prevent it from escalating as more people go Open. Can we prevent it? Is collective disapproval enough?