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Intense Competition among Scientists Has Gotten out of Hand

Intense competition among scientists has led to abuses. Is there a better way?



Carl Wiens

When Isaac Newton developed calculus and his theory of gravity, he reaped a reward far greater than stock options in a start-up or a big year-end bonus. He got credit for his work and recognition among his peers—and eventually the wider world. Since Newton, science has changed a great deal, but this basic fact has not. Credit for work done is still the currency of science.

How should credit for scientific work be assigned? The question has tremendous implications for how science is done and what society gets from its investment. Since the earliest days of science, bragging rights to a discovery have gone to the person who first reports it. This “priority rule” has led to some colorful disputes—Newton famously got into a tussle with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who wanted credit for inventing calculus—but by and large, the rule has worked well. In recent years, however, intense competition among scientists has led to difficulties, and we have begun to wonder if there isn't a better way.

At its best, the priority rule fosters healthy competition, which can be a strong motivator for scientists to innovate and rapidly solve problems. Economists view scientific knowledge as a public good, which means that competitors are free to make use of that knowledge once it is publicized. The priority rule provides a potent incentive for scientists to share their knowledge. Some think that the priority rule also helps to ensure that society gets the optimal return from its investment in science because rewards go to those scientists who benefit society the most.

The winner-take-all aspect of the priority rule has its drawbacks, however. It can encourage secrecy, sloppy practices, dishonesty and an excessive emphasis on surrogate measures of scientific quality, such as publication in high-impact journals. The editors of the journal Nature have recently exhorted scientists to take greater care in their work, citing poor reproducibility of published findings, errors in figures, improper controls, incomplete descriptions of methods and unsuitable statistical analyses as evidence of increasing sloppiness. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

As competition over reduced funding has increased markedly, these disadvantages of the priority rule may have begun to outweigh its benefits. Success rates for scientists applying for National Institutes of Health funding have recently reached an all-time low. As a result, we have seen a steep rise in unhealthy competition among scientists, accompanied by a dramatic proliferation in the number of scientific publications retracted because of fraud or error. Recent scandals in science are reminiscent of the doping problems in sports, in which disproportionately rich rewards going to winners has fostered cheating.

The importance of teamwork in science has never been greater. Studies of publications over the past 50 years show that teams increasingly dominate science and are contributing the highest-impact research. Collaborators, consortia and networks are essential for tackling interdisciplinary problems and massive undertakings, such as the Human Genome Project. The priority rule may be undermining this process.

The appropriateness of the priority rule for science has never been seriously questioned. Is it best suited to the modern scientific age, in which scientists operate in large teams that put a premium on cooperation? An alternative system that celebrates team effort toward solving problems may work better. Industry, which favors collective goals over individual achievement, and the NIH Intramural Research Program, which encourages risk taking and collaborative partnerships with industry and academia, provide contrasting but instructional examples. Perhaps scientists would gladly trade the benefits of the priority rule (individual reward) for a system that offers greater stability of support and collegiality, freer sharing of information, more fairness, and improved scientific rigor and cooperation. This would be a discovery of enormous benefit to the scientific enterprise and the society it serves.

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