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Crushing the Opposition

Research is a competitive business. Researchers compete against each other for grants, promotions, fellowships, awards etc etc. In order to 'be competitive', we need to publish both in terms of quantity (especially early in the career) and in terms of quality (as determined by the impact factor of the journals we publish in). In truth research probably attracts a high proportion of competitive characters so many of us will be more or less comfortable with this state of affairs. But how/when does competition become counter-productive? While all of us do need to think about our own careers and put food on the table/beer in the fridge/nappies on the baby or whatever, it is worth keeping in mind what the ultimate goal of Health Care research is.

There are numerous ways in which competition manifests itself in the research world and my goal here is by no means to discuss them all, but I will share a couple of the thoughts that have struck me over the past couple of years. The first concerns the issue of sharing data. In my opinion, researchers are generally pretty poor at this. Despite the fact that researchers doing similar work at different centres often know each other personally, studies that use data collected by different groups are relatively rare. Why is this? Apathy? Ego? Competitiveness? Inability to play nicely with the other children? Some sense of ownership of the data? It is this last possibility that interests me as I suspect this attitude is quite common. Amongst some (many?) researchers there can be the feeling that data (numbers in a spreadsheet) represent some kind of intellectual property. Now I'm certainly no lawyer, but this idea strikes me as odd. Surely if to anyone, these numbers 'belong' to the study participants, who presumably agreed to contribute their information for the good of society at large. Further though, it is usually the case that studies are funded by public (tax-payer) money and often conducted by researchers whose salaries come from the same source.

Maybe it would be appropriate for government funding bodies (NIH, EU, NHMRC, NHS, ZonMw etc) to hold and administer access to all data collected in publically-funded studies? Regardless, all junior researchers appreciate the time, money, tears and sleepless nights that go into collecting clinical research data - it does nothing for anyone sitting in a SPSS file.

The second issue I wanted to highlight was competition within research facilities. How comfortable are you talking about your research ideas/plans with the people you (directly or indirectly) work with? Does doing so represent a chance to develop, nourish and improve the end result or leave an opening for someone else to 'steal' your ideas? In my view the benefits of the former almost certainly outweigh the risks of the latter. It seems to me that these situations present a good opportunity to exercise the principle of innocent until proven guilty. But this view is not universal and may be different in the environment where you work. The question is though: What do you think about it?

Following on from this, what do you think about close colleagues e.g. other PhD students or postdocs applying for the same awards, fellowships or grants as you? Are you happy to read and comment on their application in order to make it better? Or would you rather not help out the opposition? I may be naive but again I think the chance that helping out a colleague will work against you is extremely small compared to the likelihood that you will get something positive from it. Take this example. You and someone you've worked together with through your PhD are applying for the same fellowship. Let's say there are 5 of these fellowships on offer. In order for your help to detrimentally affect you, the following would have to happen. Your application would have to be the 6th best of all those submitted and your assistance would have to have improved your colleagues application from 7th/8th/9th/150th etc to inside the top 5, pretty unlikely I would think. On the other hand, consider the benefits of having a trusted colleague, confidante, now and into the future who may be a source of advice, support, friendship, collaboration etc.

Research is a competitive business but there are choices that you make that determine when/how counterproductive that competition becomes.