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Pros And Cons Of Competition In Research

If you're working on your master's, PhD or a postdoc, you've probably already asked yourself this question: should you collaborate or compete more with your colleagues? Let's take a closer look at the pros and cons of both.

Aug 15, 2018
  • Education
  • Student Tips
Pros And Cons Of Competition In Research

With scientific research comes the joy of discovery and the quest for answers.

While harmless in and of themselves, the field of research comes with a hefty helping of competition, too -- a race to the top between researchers. Sure, you may want to work with your colleagues and get to know them, but do you want to compete with them for publication? Recognition? Funding?

In the field of science, competition reigns supreme, and it has its shares of advantages and disadvantages.

How do you navigate all that competition? Do you work closely with those around you? Or do you seal yourself off in your lab, keeping your results to yourself, publishing first, and receiving all the funding?

The answer? It's complicated, and you will probably need to find a balance between collaborating and competing to make in the world of scientific research..

Let's take a closer look at the pros and cons of competing with your colleagues.


1. You'll go the extra mile

When you want to win, you push yourself. It is just as true running a race as it is being the first to publish something new, or earn a prestigious grant. Instead of seeing it as a stumbling block, look at competition as a healthy dose of adrenalin. Being on the cutting edge is a good feeling, even if you are not first, even if you do not win. You can always say that you gave it your all, and you will give even more next time.

As long as you stick to your moral compass, remain ethical, and remain kind, there is nothing wrong with pushing yourself so that you come out ahead.

Be honest. Be good. And win.

2. Competition is inherent in science

Science is more competitive than ever. Access to resources and funding are scarce, as are desirable academic jobs.

The field itself requires a certain level of comfort with competition and a willingness and desire to excel.

The first to make a discovery. The first to publish it. The first to receive recognition for it. That is part of what defines science and has for a long time.

In an April 2015 editorial in the journal Infection and Immunity, the authors cite Robert K. Merton's 1957 essay where he argues competition is a driving force behind research discoveries. From Newton and Leibniz to Darwin and Russell, and Watson and Crick arguing with Pauling, competition certainly can spur scientific advancement. 

However, it also has a darker side...


1. Rushed decisions

That's right: competition makes you more likely to make rushed decisions.

The results of those rushed decisions are sometimes ok, but when they are not, they can be disastrous. Take, for example, the situation where you know the competition is fierce. You're running head-to-head with a lab doing similar research. And you have shaky data. And it gets published. Then it gets overturned.

Was it worth the rush?

While you need to work quickly in science, sometimes it is better to wait and be right than rush and be wrong.

2. Bad Behavior

That's right. Sometimes, when we want to win, we are not so nice.

Scientists are people, too. The human instinct to win can occasionally overpower good judgment. The end result? Not so good.

The constant need for publication, recognition, and the big one -- funding -- can push some researchers over the brink of decency into distrust, deceit, and naughtiness. Don't do it. While it may allow you to "win" in the short-term, there is no long-term win.

Science is a highly competitive field and academia even more so. Make sure that you stick to your principles and do not do things that you may regret later on.