Science, red in tooth and claw?

Science is competitive—very competitive. We compete with our scientific peers for funding. Departments and institutions compete for the best talent. There can even be competition between colleagues within the same lab. The currency of success is high-impact publications. Principal Investigators need to publish as senior author in order to obtain funding and secure tenure, and students and postdocs need first author (ideally first first author) publications in order to some day receive a tenure-track position. Given that competition is both intense and widespread at every level of professional science, it is a subject worth giving serious thought.

Most people would agree that competition, at least in certain forms, is a force for good because it can foster both efficiency and creativity. On the other hand, when competition becomes too intense, it can incentivize us to sacrifice rigor for speed, leading to sloppy science and even fraud. There is also intense competition for resources (Fig. 1). As funding has become scarcer (Fig. 2), competition has intensified in ways that may be contributing to an increase scientific misconduct1. Since 1975, there has been an approximately tenfold increase the proportion of papers retracted due to fraud (rather than human error)2 and there is growing concern about the reproducibility of published results3. Even though we can’t be certain of the causes, the increasing rate of paper retractions should give us pause (Fig. 3).


Figure 1: Success rates of scientists applying for NIH research grants.


Figure 2: NIH funding levels 1950-present (source).


Figure 3: Rate of retracted papers, 1977-2011. Bars show the total number of publications by year; line shows retraction rate. (source)

As a PhD student, I have witnessed the ways in which intense competition can affect both individuals and the culture of science generally. Being scooped by another group is one of the worst experiences someone can have, especially if significant time and effort has been invested into a project. Because scientists naturally love discussing ongoing experiments, groups in the same field commonly learn of other labs’ work ahead of publication. This typically leads competing groups to work at an exhausting pace as they race for the prize of being the first to demonstrate something. I have also heard senior PIs comment on the ways in which scientific culture seems to be changing. At least in certain fields, scientists seem to be less eager to present data from ongoing work at meetings unless it has already been published or submitted to a journal. This potential cultural shift is troubling because hearing about cutting-edge work is one of the most thrilling parts of science.

Competition can also be one of the more exciting aspects of the scientific process. Many professional scientists become so enthralled by their work that they also become experts on the history of their field. We commonly speak of our favorite scientists in heroic terms and recall our favorite experiments with great fondness. The same passion that can drive extreme competitiveness also drives a strong investment in the perfection of our craft. Our passion may also lead us to dramatize big rivalries, past and present. Some of the most famous figures in the history of neurobiology, Santiago Ramón y Cajal and Camillo Golgi, are remembered in part for their long and often bitter rivalry with one another. Rivalry is also a popular topic of modern neuroscientific gossip. Who, for example, will be included in the likely Nobel Prize for optogenetics (see this and this for an overview on how these discoveries transpired, and hints at the underlying controversy)?

At the end of the day, the scientific process is a human process. Like any other human affair, scientific progress is built on the backs of groups and individuals driven by different motivations. While intense competition is an inevitable and even desirable force for insuring innovation and progress, it is important for us to remain cognizant of the ways in which the pressures of being on the cutting-edge can affect the honesty and rigor that distinguish science from other human institutions.



[1] Lam, B. A Scientific Look at Bad Science. The Atlantic (Sept. 2015).

[2] Fang, F.C. et al. Misconduct accounts for the majority of retracted scientific publications. PNAS 109, 17028-33 (2012).

[3] Nature special report. Challenges in irreproducible research.

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  1. TBT: The lessons we learned from a dead fish | Harvard Neuroscience Blog

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