Once “eureka!” strikes,
how briskly triumph bends to
terror’s brutal blows.
It happens when we least expect it. We open an email, glance at a website, or peruse a conference program and there it is… OUR paper, written by another author. Stomach in knots and heart pumping, we go sheet-white as the blood rushes to our feet. Oh no. This can't be happening.
And yet, it is. It happens to all of us.
This experience can be especially unsettling for assistant professors focused on building a tenurable research record over just a few years. When we discover a competing paper, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that our careers are going straight down the tubes. To make things worse (if that's possible), for many (like me), this experience reinforces the erroneous belief that if something is a good idea, someone has already done it. Left unchecked, this view can become crippling. Why ever start a new project if it's doomed to be either unoriginal or uninteresting?
So how might we acknowledge the real fear of being scooped without being consumed by it? For me, it begins with remembering that there’s room in the world for more than one article or book on any given topic. I’m not suggesting we behave naively or bury our heads in the sand as I often did early in my career. (Sure, ignorance is bliss… until reality slaps us in the face.) These are not the most effective coping strategies in the long run.
What if, instead, we admit that although it may be slightly harder to get a paper published when there’s competition, the existence of multiple studies on the topic signals broad interest, which is a clear plus? And how about remembering that we each have our own approach, our own perspective, our own voice… all of which are critical to advancing the collective knowledge?
Maybe it helps to hear that one of my early papers had not one, not two, but THREE competing studies, some of which were written by highly prominent scholars in my field. And guess what? All four papers ended up published. There truly is room.
Finally, let’s offer ourselves some compassion. The path toward tenure is winding and thorny. Treating ourselves with kindness and patience, no matter what we’re going through, helps to buffer our negative experiences, strengthening our ability to bounce back.
And that’s important. Because when we're at our best, the sky's the limit.