The competitive teamplayer

A workplace presents challenges – always, in fact. These can consist of shift times, changing work locations or character requirements. What the challenges are depends on the workplace. In some workplaces, the situation is particularly complex. A good example of this is science.

A characteristic feature of scientific work is to constantly network and cooperate with other scientists and institutions. There is collaboration and research. More than one author works on scientific publications. Especially in the ocean sciences, many field expeditions are undertaken with large groups of scientists who then live together on a ship for several weeks and take samples.
In such a workplace, it is very important to be a team player.

Also, a characteristic of scientific work is to be constantly in competition with other scientists and institutions. Data and results are valuable, so to speak the currency with which payment is made in science. Whoever’s name appears first on a scientific publication is considered the first author and is thus mainly cited. The more publications you can show, the further you get in the professional field. This is important because jobs, as well as recognition, are scarce and highly coveted here. One could go so far as to say that those who assert themselves here and pay attention to personal progress win. Publish or perish (in irrelevance, the expiration of the contract, from science).
In such a workplace it is very important to be competitive.

A rather impossible workplace

So, science is a workplace that favors particularly competitive people, but also particularly team-oriented people. This makes little sense. How is a person supposed to navigate this dichotomy?

In fact, this is precisely a point of concern for many people in research. ‘How much do I need to think about myself and my career now?’ versus ‘How much do I care about others who have less experience?’ Or ‘How much do I need to take care of my data?’, versus ‘How open can I be with my results and share them with other scientists?’ There doesn’t seem to be any real clarity here. Much is decided in the context of people skills, personal choice, and area of expertise.

As I have done several times before, when I am moved by a question, I talk to ocean scientists from the ocean projects CUSCO, EVAR and REEBUS about their view on the topic. What strikes me first is that the feedback is different when I record the conversation than when I talk to the researchers again privately after the recording is over. They even notice themselves that the dynamic changes when you can ‘talk freely’. For me, that already says a lot about the problem. At least that it is known. And probably also part of a not-so-simple situation that people in science find themselves in.

It is the system that is at fault, not the idea

A lot of things work well, and it’s also important for everyone to see and say that. Science is subject to ethical standards, and the experience with working in science is consistently positive. Data is shared and exchanged in collaborations. The atmosphere among researchers is one of trust.

At the same time, I am told that ocean science, more than any other, is a field where particularly close integration is necessary. That because of this, the dynamics may also be different. That trust, collaboration and data exchange are necessary to produce scientific publications in a meaningful way. And, that in other areas of science there are reports again and again from people who have encountered exactly the problem mentioned: Theft of ideas and data. Or simply the feeling of constantly walking a tightrope between giving too much away and giving too little away. And ocean science is not entirely free of the dichotomy between team play and individual struggle either. I notice this at the latest when a situation between two colleagues suddenly feels strange – suspicious.

Science has to compete to some extent. That makes sense to me. Competition fosters creative progress and high-quality results. As is so often the case, it is the balance that seems to determine how much competition favors the quality of science in a healthy way, or builds up too much pressure, creating more problematic ways of working. Working in science is always a balancing act. There’s no getting around it. However, the current path does not seem to be the best way. And there doesn’t seem to be a really good solution to the dilemma. For that to happen, the science system would have to change and offer more permanent positions and prospects in order to ease the competition a bit.

There are solutions – implementation is lacking

There is already the approach of making scientific data available to all disciplines and all generations in an uncomplicated way. For example, via the Pangea system or the Helmholtz Metadata Collaboration. Their goal is to make data discoverable, accessible and reusable for the entire scientific community – without any competition.

If such approaches to contributing to the community gained higher prominence, and were even instrumental in deciding who is considered for positions or who is recognized as a greatness in the field, the focus of science would actually be more on the data itself. And on working well together to capture it. Less on hoarding data to self-publish.

Being purely competitive currently works better in science than being a pure team player, I am told in conclusion. But one would not necessarily be part of the scientific community anymore if it became too egocentric. Perhaps this social factor, this striving to be accepted among the people with whom one shares so much, is the one point that ensures that a lot goes together after all, in research. And that things remain bearable, with the competitive thinking. In the long run, however, a systemic change in favor of better science and the people who make it is inevitable. The situation can’t go on like this forever.

Author: Ann Kristin Montano

Former scientist who worked long enough in other fields to build up stereotypes about scientists. Now likes to work among scientists to break down the stereotypes. Has been sitting in front of this text for a long time. After talking to many colleagues, has finally found positive approaches to the problem. Still thinks that a fundamental change of the system is indispensable to solve this.

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