When I was previously an undergraduate research assistant in a small lab group (seven members), there was a situation where the PI had pitched a research study idea to multiple students independently, with none of us knowing that the others had been told about the idea. The PI encouraged each one of us to go off on our own and pursue the idea, try to make some progress, and eventually come back to them with a better idea of how to approach the project (perhaps even some preliminary results).
I only found out a few weeks later that the PI had pitched the idea to multiple students when a discussion with the other students shifted towards current projects and ideas. As we talked, one student mentioned that the PI had told them about "a new idea for a research study" and that they "had devoted quite a bit of time making progress on the study." That research study happened to be the same one that I was pitched by the PI, and one that I had also spent considerable time working on recently.
The PI had told me that good work on this project could lead to a potential conference presentation and/or journal publication, and I was keen on making good progress. However, finding out that I wasn't the only person in the research group working independently on the idea made me feel like I was unfairly placed into a competition I wasn't even aware of. I could have invested plenty of time into the research project, only to discover that a colleague had already finish more than I had and, therefore, made my progress effectively worthless.
I'm curious what members of the academic community think about the ethics of this. Is it ethical to pit people in the same group against one another on a project, with the credit going to the one that finishes better and/or faster? Do the ethics of this change when the students aren't told that there are others working on this?
In this case, I happened to be an undergraduate research assistant while the other was a master’s student, but I'm wondering if this matters. At the time, we were both paid members of the lab, but I've heard about similar situations where one/both people were volunteer undergraduates working for free.
One part of me says that I was entitled the fair opportunity to work on the project knowing that I would receive due credit for any findings I made. But another part of me says that this is the nature of academia, and I should learn to thrive in situations like these.