Home > Scholarly Communication > Competition vs Collaboration: Which is better for scientific progress?

Competition vs Collaboration: Which is better for scientific progress?

Motivation: Competition encourages people to work harder, to work better, to deliver more efficient products. Most of the time, whoever does it best/fastest, is rewarded the most. This is also true in science, where whoever makes the first discovery is the one that will get the much needed grants and their publications. On the other hand, the more minds working on the same issues, the more likely there will be faster results by those people. So collaboration is what one could consider a good thing for scientific progress.

Problem Statement: However, and now speaking more in the context of science, this competitive nature also slows down collaboration. Since the more one collaborates with others, the more likely they will reach results faster, but the smaller their own share of recognition is. And it is logical to want to reward the ones that do the best/fastest. I mean, sure it is likely that many important “answers” will be found eventually, but whoever comes out on top of the pack and finds those answers first is likely to be more “special” than the others. Perhaps a better scholar, or a more imaginative scholar that lead them to be the first to find the answers that everyone wanted to know. And rewarding the people who are “better” than the rest in their fields, maximizes the efficiency of grant funding, which in turn makes scientific research possible. So this is quite a dilemma on deciding which route is the way to go.

Findings: In a world with unlimited funding, collaboration is a the way to go with no issues whatsoever. However, as we live in a world where funding is limited, it is necessary to be choosy, and that means you need to spend the money on the best people to increase the odds of getting the best results. As such, encouraging people to show that they have what it takes is important, which means that collaboration might not always be the way to go.

Over at Nature Network, I ran into a lively blog post/discussion by Richard Grant titled: On the Nature of Networking

It is today perhaps taken for granted that the potential for the most exciting (dare I say ‘striking ’?) scientific discoveries lie at the interfaces between traditional disciplines. This presupposes that scientists will collaborate with each other: just within biology it is impossible for any single person to grok every subtlety in any work of significance.

Considering my current fascination with scholarly communication and IT to support it, I should really be more interested in the web technology part of that discussion, e.g. why it is not catching on as it should to progress science?

“Indeed, so why aren’t you?”

Well, I have my own theories on that, and I am working on something myself to improve that, so I guess I have read quite a bit on it already. So for now, more interestingly, the conversation regarding competition vs collaboration has caught my eye.

David Whitlock said:

I see too much competition as a problem that is impeding progress in science. My experience is that peoples’ perceived need to be competitive interferes with their ability to interact positively with people doing good work that may be tangential to their own.

Stephen Curry said:

David – I agree competition can be counter-productive but it is a fact of scientific life. It arises in part from various super-egos playing the game skillfully but at root, I think, is the competitive funding mechanism that we have to contend with. While that is far from perfect (a topic for another extended conversation!), it does have the benefit of keeping us on our toes.

David Basanta said:

If we dare not post our latest research ideas for fear of having another scientist taking them from us we move away from collaboration to straight competition and this is unlikely to be the best for Science (with capital letters) as a whole.


Okay, so far nothing completely out of the blue, but from here on it gets a bit more controversial.

David Whitlock said:

Why should we encourage many researchers to work on the same topic when only a few of them (those who happen to publish first) end up not eating dirt?

Because we are not sure who those people making the discoveries, if any, are? And perhaps some of those who are going to be ‘eating dirt’ may still contribute a vital part (unintentionally) so others can benefit and finalize their works? Maybe the assurance of knowing that there are scholars going at this issue from a different angle help your productivity from the angle you are taking? This is hard to say, and I do not think it is very scientific to simply assume that we will find the answers with less people or even at all. I agree that it is likely that answers will inevitably be found, but that does not mean it is absolutely certain. And perhaps there is a good cause for speeding up those discoveries in contrast to others? I think there are way too many variables to justify a statement such as this.

In the same post David Whitlock also said:

The data and inferences from a scientific project are the same no matter where they are published. Why is publication strategy so important to a scientist’s career? Because of “competition”. Effort put into such “competition” may advance an individual scientist’s career, it does not advance Science.

Traditionally this has not been the case, and even with new search technology and better access to data, publishing in high profile journals is a lot more beneficial for the authors, because their work will likely be noticed and read far more than in lower profile journals. Which, as Richard Grant has said, also influences their job/career and the like.

More importantly, I think advancing an individual scientist’s career does not always have to be mutually exclusive with advancing science at top speed. Truth is, these scientists have done something different, by themselves or restricted in small groups, which shows their efficiency and their effectivity with getting results. If you are going to spend your money on progressing something the fastest/best, why not on the people that have shown to be the better or more creative thinkers? The people who, without collaboration, would still be at the top of their fields? Does collaboration not in fact become an obstacle to the growth of great (scientific) thinkers? And more practically, assuming funding for scientific projects is limited, and they are, would you not want to put the people on it that have shown the greatest individual contribution, as proof that they are in fact capable of producing the best results for the funding that they are granted i.e most efficient?

Stephen Curry said:

In reality science or Science, can only progress with resources and, if we are to dispense with competition as a way to allocate funding, how else is it to be done? By a committee of grandees perhaps who can decide what topics are significant and who is to work on them? I don’t think anyone would like to go down that route. You are certainly right that there’s a downside to competition – but what better mechanism is there?

Jennifer Rohn said:

Stephen, I agree with you. Competition keeps humanity sharp, no matter the endeavor. Do we really want all potential scientists to succeed in the business? Or only the top x per cent, the most excellent and dedicated and (dare I say) hungry, that can be sustained?

“Cool, she’s saying what you’re saying! Or are you just saying what she’s saying?”

This has actually been my own view, but I admit there is nothing really groundbreaking about it. Anyway, what inspired me to write this blog post is in fact this entry by David Whitlock:

The most important research is (in my opinion), not “the answer” that many people are looking for. If many people are working on it, eventually “the answer” will be found. Who finds “the answer” first is a detail that is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of Science. It is the fields where no one is working that are most important to start working on. Which ones are those? We don’t know because no one is working on them.

So yeah, I guess I cannot entirely agree with this. In a perfect world, this person might be right. But in a world with limited funding, and the need to be as efficient and as effective as possible, encouraging people to be the best in their fields is likely a very significant factor in progressing science.

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