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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.

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    It's possible that the PI intended to have the students "compete" against one another. It's also possible that the PI was just throwing an idea out there, didn't know which students (if any) would pursue that idea, and would later encourage the students to pool their efforts if more than one student came back and said "Hey, I'm interested in this idea you shared, here's what I have done." (You know the PI, I don't, so you may have some idea which motivation is more likely.) – ff524 Apr 14 at 2:29
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    "with the credit going to the one that finishes better and/or faster?" Why do you think that will happen? – Anonymous Physicist Apr 14 at 2:30
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    What was the outcome? Did only 1 student work on this project in the end? Did multiple students work on it collaboratively? Was there an open discussion where all of the ruminations and potential approaches were pooled and compared? – Chronocidal Apr 14 at 15:22
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Let me try with an "onion-answer", one layer at a time.

  1. It is certainly not unethical to have several undergraduate students work on the same project. This is how most people get by, as there are simply not enough interesting and unique projects at undergraduate level that everybody can get their own. (And if there are, it would take too much time developing them.)

  2. It is borderline unethical to set up a competition between students in your lab, dangling the prize of a conference presentation or a publication ahead of them. The focus should be on how to do good research, not how to get ahead of your colleagues - even though it is sometimes also part of research. I can see how this could be done in a somewhat fun and productive atmosphere, so I will not dismiss it off hand. But I would much rather have the students work together, than against each other.

  3. It is blatantly unethical to have a competition among your undergraduate students without informing them, that they are in a competition, first. I assume from your post, that you have never said yes to be in such a competition, and that you in good faith assumed that your chances of getting the "prize" would be based on your performance alone, and not how it compares to the performance of other students. This is a kind of "bait and switch" strategy, also often used for job interviews, where you get a person in the door by promising them a reward - but at the end of the day there is only one reward, and many people competing.

Finally, you mention that part of the prize is also "credit". Here I want to tell you, that if any scientific work is done towards a specific publication as part of the non-winning studies, the authors of said work should be credited as co-authors. Even if they don't win the competition.

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    +1. Rather than a competition, I suspect the supervisor will combine (better) efforts into a single conference paper, hence, I suspect there's no prize. (I accept some lesser efforts need to be discarded, but they aren't competing anyhow.) – user2768 Apr 14 at 14:13
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    "there are simply not enough interesting and unique projects at undergraduate level that everybody can get their own" Nonsense. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 15 at 0:23
  • Mostly agree, but as for item 2 - a PI, or the group, democratically, should actively encourage different student-researchers to go in different directions which aren't simply trying the same thing. And - to share findings every certain amount of time. – einpoklum Apr 15 at 8:11
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: Look at the full sentence before you declare it nonsense. I could plausibly give all my undergraduate students a project which is a) interesting, b) unique and c) at a level where they can make progress themselves (note that any two out of three would not be a problem...), but then I would have no time to do anything else. I am happy for you that you have no problem doing all three, but looking at my colleagues, I see that I am not alone. – nabla Apr 15 at 13:22
  • @nabla I did look at the full paragraph and I only declared a small part of it to be nonsense. I suggest you edit the paragraph to be clearer. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 15 at 23:20
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I might actually have to applaud that professor, but only under certain circumstances. If you were in "competition" with each other for grades in some course then no, it would not be ethical. But then, I normally define competitive grading in general to be unethical. It should be possible for every student to succeed and even to get full marks in any course.

But there is nothing wrong with getting truly independent thought processes going on a research problem. You were given the opportunity to solve a, perhaps hard, problem using your own resources. There is a lot of value in that, both for yourself and for science.

Search around for information about the search for how DNA works (Double Helix). There were independent groups that attacked the problem from different angles. It was a rather extreme competition to be first.

But, I don't think the professor wanted you to sabotage one another in the search and they were correct that one or maybe several of you had the potential for publication. In fact, different approaches to the same problem can each be worthy of publication since the path to a solution is often (some fields, anyway) even more important than the final answer.

And if the professor is wise enough they will recognize that for a budding scientist the search itself is valuable even if unsuccessful.

If the professor was willing to reward everyone for their work, not just the first over the line, there there is nothing wrong with this, and much to be admired. You may want to thank them someday for that experience.

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  • +1: My favorite answer, especially for the second and fourth paragraphs. – user2768 Apr 14 at 14:18
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    This answer reminds me of my advisor's advisor. He gave two students the same problem and told one "prove this" and the other one "find a counterexample". The latter student won, the first had to start a new phd project after one year. – user111388 Apr 14 at 16:55
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    @user111388, even that isn't necessarily bad. Both were after the truth. Either could have been the one to find the counterexample, or a proof, in case it were true. Presumably the advisor didn't already know the answer. The game wasn't rigged. – Buffy Apr 14 at 17:01
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    @Buffy: I don't say the game was rigged. But as my advisor said, both students were really mad (what I understand) at the advisor. – user111388 Apr 14 at 17:03
  • @user111388, and in the case under discussion the instructions to the various students seems to have been the same, not contradictory. In math we feel good when we find the truth. – Buffy Apr 14 at 17:07
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Having two undergraduate students compete against each other is probably not unethical, but usually is a bad idea.

Duplicate research is wasteful, and may be unethical. For students, the purpose of duplicate work might be duplicate training, which is not unethical. A supervisor might assume that undergraduates are unlikely to complete a project, in which case duplicate effort is potentially appropriate.

Assuming that duplicate effort was somehow justified, framing that duplication as a competition instead of a collaboration is inappropriate. The goal of research is to create knowledge, not to create winners.

Assigning the same project to multiple people without telling them is also obnoxious. But obnoxious does not imply unethical.

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    I would say it's unpleasant, but legitimate if the competition is open. Not making it open is more than obnoxious. It is seriously undermining trust, even if we ignore the ethics. Some open competition may be good for motivation. Implicit competition can be toxic. Again, I do not know whether ethical categories are applicable here, unless it's the Golden Rule. – Captain Emacs Apr 14 at 13:25
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    +1. Although duplicate research is wasteful, parallel research, producing different results (possibly due to careful supervision) is not wasterful. – user2768 Apr 14 at 14:15
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    @user2768, and students learning how to do research isn't "wasteful" in any sense. – Buffy Apr 14 at 14:48
  • "Competitions" for things exist all over the place to "spur innovation" ... though this is a bit different still there could be some gains, if also some losses, I'd imagine... – rogerdpack Apr 14 at 22:31
  • @Buffy - i think we need to distinugish between two students doing the same project as part of their education, and two employees of a research lab being put into competition. I regularly give several undergrads the same dissertation project. That is not the same as setting up two people in my lab as working against each other. If I ws going to have two people in the lab on the same project, they would work together, not against each other. – Ian Sudbery Apr 15 at 10:57
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It's not a good sign when the only justification you can think of is that it's somewhat like the status quo. Most people use the status quo as justification because they're in a position to profit, not because it's actually right. The rest do so because they are resigned to their plight.

It's a bad sign when the status quo has already been challenged. An often criticized factor in the replication crisis is how only the "successful" in a world of bitter competition are rewarded or acknowledged.

It's an especially bad sign when there is deception, even if only of omission. With the most open mind possible, I could imagine that this competition was intended to foster independence and ambition, and that in the end, all are given equal opportunity to be acknowledged, whether through your own papers, coauthorship, or sharing the presentation. I can't imagine there being a good reason for not saying so if that were so.

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I personally think it is unethical to have multiple people working in a single team against each other - Science is a team endevour.

Note, I don't think having two people within a reserach team compeating on the same project is the same thing as giving two undergraduate students the same project for their dissertation or as part of an assessed module - in that case both students can get good marks doing the same project - they are not competing.

Irrespective of the ethics, its poor management. Competion increases stress, and increased stress decreases productivity. It forsters mistrust amoungst the very people who should be supporting each other. And at the end of the day, all the effort that goes into the project from one person is completely wasted.

But I have heard of this practice before. Personally, I agree with the poster who said that this would be a massive warning light not to work with this professor.

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I'll take a slightly difference stance here...

You write:

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.

Well, that could happen (and very often does) with other people outside of your organization. You have an idea, work on it, and before you're finished, someone else publishes their results.

Now, does it necessarily make your progress effectively worthless? In most cases, no:

  • You have worked on the project and have probably learned a lot of things in the process. This has a value. You now know the subject a lot better than you did before. This is marketable. It's no longer something you've vaguely heard about in lectures. This is something you actually worked on.

  • You may have taken a slightly different approach. You may have gotten slightly different results. This is still useful. You could publish something that confirms the findings of the others. Or disproves them. Or mitigates them. Or improves the process. The chances you did exactly the same thing and got exactly the same result are probably tiny (though of course it may depend on the field and topic).

  • You learned that life is not always fair :-)

Now, you don't specify whether whatever "reward" you would have gotten from this (grade, conference...) would necessarily only have been awarded to the first/best one. Maybe you would both have had a credit. Maybe once you are advanced enough in your research, you would have been put to work together.

But independent research is good. Different ideas, different approaches, different data. Progress. Dead ends. Victories. Upsets. That looks like research to me.

Whether this is the best approach, and the way this was presented to you was ideal is probably controversial (as seen by the reactions). But unethical is probably not a qualification I would slap on this.

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This does happen. The PI has done you a favor; you know they're terrible. Sometimes terrible people hide it very well and you have to spend years figuring it out.

It's not ethical at all but it's not misconduct so they won't stop.

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  • Why not explain why the PI is unethical and terrible? Rebut me, @CaptainEmacs, and other answers, help us advance our minds. – user2768 Apr 15 at 7:12
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    Most comments deleted. Please be nice. – Wrzlprmft Apr 15 at 12:29
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This question seems to reside on the borderline of ethics, with the "grey area" arising from a few missing pieces of information not supplied by the OP.

I will begin by "guesstimating" what has happened so far.

  1. The PI identified a potentially interesting research topic.
  2. The PI identified several students who were potentially capable of conducting research on this topic.
  3. The PI pitched this topic to all of the students in 2, above, dangling the prospect of publication as a prize. So far we're on neutral ground.

The ethical issues relate to the nature of the resulting "competition."

  1. The decision about publication will be made by a neutral third party such as a scientific journal, that will accept all "qualified" entries. This is the best possible result.

  2. The decision about publication will be made by the neutral third party that will choose one project for publication, including candidates from the "outside" the group. This is OK.

  3. The PI makes the choice of deciding which projects to submit for publication, selecting all that meet some objective "qualifying" standards.This is OK, also.

  4. The PI makes the choice of selecting one student project to submit for publication. This is the case that raises ethical issues, at least as I see it. If there is only one "prize" and it is awarded by the PI (rather than a neutral third party), then the nature of the competition should have been disclosed to the students beforehand, IMHO.

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