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In many fields of academia, a professor must get grants to fund his research (e.g., medicine, biology).

Early in academic career, a scientist can have naive expectations about how things work in academia and later may be surprised by the reality. One such surprise is the compete and collaborate paradox.

Later in career, it may be not so simple to collaborate and share fully your ideas, since twice a year (or so) we all submit grants and we suddenly are less friendly colleagues who share ideas, but we compete with each other or between "groups". For example, we don't let anyone see our full grant submissions. (e.g., NIH medical grants - full text must be requested by freedom of information act and only abstracts are on the web).

  • How do you handle in every day life, at conferences, in hallway conversations this paradox of collaborating and competing at the same time in academia?

  • How do you determine what to share?

  • Do you avoid colleagues who are known to 'tell only the minimum' at congresses and then surprise later with an accepted grant?

Philosophically, it is impossible to collaborate and compete at the same time and one has to have some ethical structure but everyone's boundaries seem to be different!

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2 Answers 2

How do you handle in every day life, at conferences, in hallway conversations this paradox of collaborating and competing at the same time in academia?

I ignore it, except around known jerks. I'm lucky enough to work in a research community that generally values collaboration over back-stabbing. There are a few exceptions, of course, but they fall under the category of "known jerks". I'd much rather gain a coauthor and get the result out together than to keep secrets and risk being scooped.

Yes, I have developed coauthors this way. Yes, I have published papers this way that might not have been published otherwise. Yes, I have been scooped, but only by people I had not discussed my ideas with.

Your mileage may vary.

How do you determine what to share?

I don't share ideas or problems that students (either mine or not) are actively working on, without the students' explicit permission. Otherwise, I'm open about everything, except around known jerks. In particular, if you want my latest grant proposal, just ask.

Do you avoid colleagues who are known to 'tell only the minimum' at congresses and then surprise later with an accepted grant?

No. Why should I?

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+1 for "known jerks" :) We all have them around... –  tohecz Aug 12 at 13:38

How do you handle in every day life, at conferences, in hallway conversations this paradox of collaborating and competing at the same time in academia?

It is very difficult indeed. Motivation for pursuing a career in academia vary significantly, and accordingly, what is considered as ethically acceptable.

From experience, it is often the issue of the man in the middle, which in practice is the major source of frustration. Individual A talks to Individual B about his ongoing (unpublished) research. Individual B then more or less forget about where he got this information, and speaks to Individual C, who implements it, unsuspectingly. Everyone behaves ethically at his level, but globally, Individual C effectively can be perceived to compete aggressively with Individual A.

A solution that some people seem to adopt in conferences in my field is to only present/discuss published material, which makes attending conference less interesting, as it only involves outdated research. Another sub-optimal approach is merchandizing, i.e. present one's research at a superficial, advertising level, so that the actual real issues/breakpoints are effectively not discussed.

On the other hand, research thrives in confronting honestly different perspective on a given typically complex problem, so there is a lot to be gained in collaborative behaviour. Modern research is also fairly specialized, and conferences are the one place where you are likely to meet experts in your field who have given some thoughts to the problems you are interested in.

In the end, everyone has to balance these things out. My advice would be to behave on the cautious side, but then again I tend not to follow my own advice. Another approach is to make sure you are so much on top of things that it does not matter :-)

Do you avoid colleagues who are known to 'tell only the minimum' at congresses and then surprise later with an accepted grant?

Well life is short, so interact preferentially with colleagues whose motivation for doing research seem to overlap most with your own.

UPDATE

Striking a balance between collaboration versus (unrestrained) competition is not specific to research/academia in fact. It is the basis of civilization! What is a bit specific to academia is that it is (poorly IMHO) self-regulated. There is no such thing as academic police/justice. I found this RSA Animate to be instructive to get a measure on how a small amount of policing in enough to get the system working.

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