Help! Someone’s working on my topic


The agonised cry of a researcher worried that they are going to be scooped. Pipped at the post. Someone else is going to get in and do what they are doing and publish beforehand.

OK. It’s alarming at first. But someone doing what you’re doing is not necessarily A Bad Thing. Even in blue skies research we sometimes see the same “discovery” made by different teams. And scientists often work together on new things. Duplication of effort might even be seen as making research results more trustworthy.

But of course we’ve all heard about times when some unscrupulous person has stolen another persons’ project and gone off and done it themselves. They’ve got funding and/or published earlier. That is more than a worry, it’s a breach of ethics and scholarly trust.

I’ve had a little version of that happen to me. Oh why not… let me tell you about it. So imagine a research project where the team held a meeting with key stakeholders to share preliminary results. Before we could say boo – and publish the final report – one of the people in the meeting went off and did their own follow-on project without any reference to us at all (sounds of loud screaming).

Of course we were established academics – having a future work-rug stolen from under our feet was not as disastrous as it might be for a doctoral or post-doctoral researcher. I do absolutely know there are worse occasions – when someone else doing the same work, or taking yours, can be truly terrible. But this theft was pretty frustrating at the time.

However, there was a lesson, a moral to the story. The theft might have made it impossible for us to carry on. Fortunately the little appropriated iteration of our project wasn’t very good. We were able to get funding to do a much more thorough version. And although I can still work up a righteous anger about unethical behaviour, as above, I did learn that concerns about duplicate work may apply less frequently than we think, well, than I thought. Most of the time someone else working on the same thing can be OK.

And let’s face it, many of us are working in areas that are already pretty crowded. The likelihood of similar projects is pretty high. But each one of us is based in a particular place and works with our own starting points, research designs and methods, theories and data sets. So even if we are tackling the same problem as loads of other people, what we come up with may well be somewhat different.

Of course, it is tricky if you are working on something already well-researched and, despite your different approach, you end up with something that is much the same as everyone else. So it’s fortunate that doctoral examiners no longer see originality as meaning something startlingly new and different, but rather that something that is new in your particular context and is a helpful contribution. So doing something that someone else is doing may not be a problem if you are a PhDer. Check with your supervisor to see if it is.

And there are circumstances where having someone else working on the same thing can actually be very helpful. Contrary to the popular myth, finding work that is like yours is often a Good Thing. Finding someone else working on much the same topic means that you have the option to organise joint conversations, presentations and publications. Establishing shared activities can often lead to new networks, bigger projects and bids. Or, if you are applying for funding or writing, you can take other people’s work as a starting point and give your own take from a different angle.

And if the work on your topic comes from a source that might be seen to be particular – say a government report – than there is the opportunity to suggest that an independent study is needed to test out the veracity of the results or to cover what was left out or to interrogate taken for granted assumptions.

It is always helpful then, when you find out that someone is working on your topic, to ask yourself whether this has the potential to be useful rather than be an obstacle.