Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Darkside of Scientific Competition

In the previous posts, I started out talking about self-promotion, then moved on to competition (and ways to avoid it), and finally, to ethics in science.  In this post, I'd like to examine how competitive atmospheres can contribute to unethical behavior by scientists.

In earlier posts, I described the Blue Ocean Strategy, a business concept in which the competition is made irrelevant by creating new market space free of competitors.  An example I gave was self-funding by scientists--who use a portion of their income (e.g., from consulting) to cover their research expenses, freeing them from having to write proposals and suffering criticism at the hands of harsh reviewers and panelists.  Another example was the idea of submitting proposals to smaller or unusual funding sources where the competition is less intense than at NSF or NIH.

Competition in science can be good when it serves to ensure that resources and other rewards are fairly distributed after an evaluation of the qualifications and merits of all eligible parties.  Without such a system, cronyism prevails.  However, when competition becomes intense, it can become counter-productive and even lead to pathological behavior.  Such an atmosphere becomes particularly problematic within research organizations when PIs are pitted against each other.  In some instances, scientists might be forced to compete for limited resources within the organization or to share lab space (a recipe for disaster, in my opinion).  We've all heard tales of sabotage, in which one laboratory group interferes with the experiments, equipment, supplies, data, etc. of a rival group.  Some of us have experienced sabotage first hand.

My experience (at a previous organization) was quite distressing--not only because of the sabotage itself, but because the lab director failed to correct the atmosphere that encouraged such behavior.  One of the instances that stands out in my mind was an occasion in which I had submitted a proposal to the sponsored research office (SRO) for final approval and submission to the funding agency.  The submission deadline was near (close of business that day), and I was anxious about this particular proposal, into which I had put a lot of effort.  I had walked the proposal through the university system to ensure that there were no delays, and had gotten a final approval signature.  I thought everything was clear for the SRO to submit the proposal--and went back to my office.

The contract specialist at the SRO, doing a final check of the proposal, found a problem with the proposal budget that needed to be corrected and called the lab to speak with me.  However, I was out of my office at lunch when the call came.  The secretary took the call, wrote down the urgent message that I needed to call back immediately, and put it into my mailbox (this was before voice mail).  In this particular institution, our mailboxes were simply open slots into which mail was placed--and where anyone else could see it.  I came back from lunch, checked my mailbox and finding nothing, proceeded on to my office.

About mid-afternoon, I had a nagging feeling and decided to call the SRO contract specialist.  I caught her just as she was leaving (early) for the day.  When she did not hear back from me, she either forgot about my proposal or didn't care (that's another story).  We quickly fixed the budget problem, and the proposal was submitted on time.  I later questioned the secretary who took the phone call, and she insisted that she put the message slip in my box.  The next day, the phone message mysteriously appeared in my mailbox.  Not only had someone tried to sabotage my funding, but they made sure I knew that I had been sabotaged.  I suspected who had done it (another PI), although I had no proof.  I can't remember if I complained to the director about this instance or not.  There were so many of them, and my complaining never resulted in any action.  I gave up at some point.

My point with this tale is that in this particular lab, competition among research groups was strongly encouraged.  We also had an open lab plan, which was an open invitation for unethical people to sabotage other's work.  Fortunately, most of my experiments were conducted in the field or greenhouse (where access was limited), and I never left any of my samples in unlocked drawers or lab analyses unattended.  I don't think any of my experiments were ever sabotaged (that I could detect).

The director of this lab sincerely thought that the competitive model was the one that would yield the greatest scientific output.  He never considered the cost--lost opportunities for collaboration (by the rival groups), time wasted on security measures or repetition of compromised experiments, and low morale and a pathological workplace.  The biggest danger is that someone will eventually do something so unethical that it casts suspicion on the research of the entire lab and/or leads to severe sanctions against the lab.  This almost happened as a result of this particular PI's underhanded ways.

He (Dr. X) and another PI with similar lack of ethics (Dr. Y) plagiarized the proposal of a group of scientists in another department.  Dr. Y apparently got access to a draft proposal by this second group (I think he may have gotten a copy from a post-doc or graduate student).  Drs. X and Y wrote their own proposal and lifted whole pages of text from the other group's proposal, which they used in their proposal--perhaps thinking it would never be discovered.  Both proposals were to be submitted to NSF.  The contract specialist in the SRO noticed the similarity of the two proposals, and an investigation ensued.  I thought, "At last, Dr. X has gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar."

I should have known better.

Amazingly, Dr. X weaseled his way out of this dilemma.  Here is what happened.  Instead of attempting to deny or defend his and Dr. Y's actions, he scoured the publications of the authors of the original proposal.  He found a recent book chapter in which one of the authors had reproduced a figure from one of Dr. X's early papers (a famous one).  The figure in question was used in the chapter to illustrate a well-known phenomenon, but the attribution to the original source somehow was omitted from the figure legend (an oversight caused by a careless post-doc helping with the chapter preparation--not deliberate plagiarism).  Dr. X produced this figure as evidence that his work had been plagiarized by the other group.  The university administration, faced with this conundrum, decided to sweep it all under the rug.  They forced both groups to withdraw their proposals, but no one was sanctioned for plagiarism.

An interesting paper in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics by Melissa Anderson describes the counter-productive outcomes of competition among scientists.  The abstract:

Competition among scientists for funding, positions and prestige, among other things, is often seen as a salutary driving force in U.S. science. Its effects on scientists, their work and their relationships are seldom considered. Focus-group discussions with 51 mid- and early-career scientists, on which this study is based, reveal a dark side of competition in science. According to these scientists, competition contributes to strategic game-playing in science, a decline in free and open sharing of information and methods, sabotage of others’ ability to use one’s work, interference with peer-review processes, deformation of relationships, and careless or questionable research conduct. When competition is pervasive, such effects may jeopardize the progress, efficiency and integrity of science. 

The authors point out that none of the scientists in the focus groups had anything positive to say about the impact of competition on their work--just the opposite.  Some of the participants felt that part of the reason is that science is much more competitive today than in the past (when it was easier to be collegial).  They pointed out that patents and other related issues are more often at stake, making secretiveness more prevalent today.  Increased competition may not be the whole story, but it can obviously exacerbate unethical behavior.

What's disturbing is that those who fund, manage, and regulate scientific research may not be fully aware of the negative impact of competition on a field that thrives on openness, sharing of ideas, and collegiality.  There is renewed emphasis on scientific integrity (as evidenced by the formation of new offices throughout government agencies charged with identification and punishment of scientific fraud).  I wonder how many of these science managers recognize the role of competition and the pressures it imposes on scientists?  My little example above suggests that some managers assume that competition is good--that it leads to healthy rivalry and greater scientific output.  My own experience and apparently that of other scientists suggests otherwise.

Image Credit (modified from photo at


Meadow said...

I totally agree with you -- this much competition isn't good. I want to present an alternative on the first scenario though. Sounds to me like your secretary forgot to put the memo in your mailbox rather than someone else taking it out and returning it. My "hostile zombie" (see FSP) routinely swaps mail when someone annoys her (and typically she gets annoyed when asked to do anything.)

DrDoyenne said...

The secretary definitely wrote the message, because I found it in my mailbox later--in her handwriting. It's possible that she put it in the wrong mailbox or even wrote it out later, but this behavior was not typical of her.

Also, I did not mention that this incident was part of a pattern of things appearing in and disappearing from my mailbox (and those of others).

It was incredibly stressful not knowing if something important had been taken. Of course, that was the intended effect.