The dark side of competition in science

Competition in science is ever increasing. Research funds are harder to come by and positions have increasing number of applicants. Being the first to publish a result has a disproportionately large impact on prestige and advancement.

These problems were already present a decade ago when Anderson et al. (2007) published their paper entitled The perverse effects of competition on scientists' work and relationship. The study consisted of a series of focus group interviews totaling 51 early to mid-career researchers.

What they found was a downward spiraling profession, where competition leads to less than professional behaviours and detrimental effects on one’s personal life.

A background on competition in science

Science, and the business of doing science is characterized by competition for priority, influence, prestige, faculty positions, funding, publications and students.

Competition ensures that ideas, work, proposals and qualifications are evaluated before rewards such as grant funding and positions are awarded. From this perspective, competition encourages open and transparent examination.

Competition has also been linked to innovation. In a competitive environment, individuals are more likely to put in long hours and strive to be more innovative than the next.

Having said this, competition also has a dark side. Previous work has shown that competition hinders open science, with some researchers withholding data or results in order to maintain an edge over the competition.

There is also an alarming relationship between competition and scientific misconduct and unethical behaviour. In competitive fields, individuals fear the conflict and retaliation from whistle-blowing of such behaviours.

Sadly, competition is also associated with a poor sense of community, likely because others are viewed as your competition. Young scientists are pitted against each other for attractive career opportunities that are becoming increasingly scarce. Team leaders want to be productive, and post-doctoral researchers are independent and productive compared to undergraduate and graduate students. Unfortunately this leads to what has been termed the post-doc bottleneck: there are many highly trained and skilled young researchers competing for only a few academic and research positions.

Commentary.

“Throughout most of its history, science was constrained by the limits of its participants’ imagination and creativity. In the past few decades, however, that state of affairs has changed dramatically. Science is now held back mainly by the number of research posts and the amount of research funds available. What had been a purely intellectual competition has now become an intense struggle for scarce resources. In the long run, this change, which is permanent and irreversible, will probably have an undesirable effect on ethical behavior among scientists. Instances of scientific fraud will almost surely become more common, as will other forms of scientific misconduct.”

Goodstein D (2002). Scientific misconduct. Academe. 88, 28-31.

What the focus groups revealed

By the end of the focus groups, Anderson et al. (2007) noted key themes that were repeatedly brought forth and discussed. These themes included:

  1. Strategic game-playing in science (e.g., not giving credit to others, taking undeserved credit, twisting projects to fit grant demands).
  2. A decline in free and open sharing of information and methods.
  3. Sabotage of others’ ability to use one’s work (e.g., omitting key details in presentation, published work and grants in order to maintain the upper hand).
  4. Interference with peer-review processes (e.g., harsh review of competitors, sucking up to potential reviewers by including many glowing citations of their work).
  5. Deformation of relationships (e.g., exploitation of students and post-docs to get work done, enforcing the power struggle between junior and senior researchers to allow the status quo to continue).
  6. Careless or questionable research practices (e.g., selective reporting of data, publishing irreproducible results, cutting corners when analysing data and reporting results to ensure findings are published).

Summary

While this study was conducted in the United States, it would not be surprising that similar experiences are had by young researchers in other countries. Also, research funds have tended to decrease over the past decade, a factor that likely has made the problem even worse today. This dark side of science, fueled by competition, jeopardizes the progress, efficiency and integrity of science. To those listening: how do we change this trend?

Reference

Anderson MS, Ronning EA, De Vries R, Martinson BC (2007).
The perverse effects of competition on scientists’ work and relationships.
Sci Eng Ethics. 13: 437-61.

 

 

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