Ad Lagendijk Ad Lagendijk 15 January 2009

Territorial disputes

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Posted in Ethics, Tips

Finding a suitable research subject is about the most difficult task in the life of a researcher. And professional scientists are confronted with this task continuously all through their career.

cowsYou do not want to work on a field that has existed for a long time and where great scientists have made large contributions. The suicidal defense that people bring forward when they embark on an almost exhausted field is:  “there is still so much to do”.

I suppose you have found your almost virgin territory and that it has made, or will make, you famous. You will however only make a largeelephants_rampage impression with your activities in your new field if many other people will work on this field as well. But if the field is indeed as promising as you think it is, you do not have to wait long,  and your terrain will be rampaged  by the  competition.

How to survive? I think there is only one correct answer: by doing better science than your colleagues. Of course if you lack some skills, expertise, or equipment, or whatever, you should look for collaborations. But try to minimize the number of collaboration because it will turn you into an operator rather than a scientist.

Keep the competition out
no_trespassingA basic mistake that I see often being made by my colleagues, junior and senior, is that they want to maintain their position by minimizing the competition by telling these competitors that they have no right to work in this field. This is a classic territorial dispute, well-known with animals where it is the main source of self-preservation. Under quite a number of circumstances the researcher that issues such a tress-passing warning is successful. The scientist that is being threateneddog_aggression_mistakes will not start to work in this field, or he will leave it. This howling success is so easy because the threatener has invariably a higher social status in science. And not giving in would lead to serious sanctions for the, socially weaker, addressee. I think that warning colleagues not to trespass, is always a sign of weakness. Just let them in. You must be convinced that you can do better yourself. If you do not have this feeling about yourself you are in the wrong business.

Trade secrets
But how do you deal with people that have worked for quite some time in your own neighborhood (for instance as your Ph. D. student) and decide later to work on their own in exactly your field? Is the behavior of such a junior immoral?  No. In a number of cases it is not the most original choice he could make but if the field is still wide open it nevertheless might be a good choice for him. However, from my own experience I discovered that these newcomers often want to have duck_aggression their cake and eat it. That is to say, they still want to make use of the old – that is your – network, use samples, talk to former colleagues and then run away with the results and publish them independently. That is immoral. Right at the first meeting where the newcomer unveils his plans to continue to work in his old field the future relation should be straightened out: he will either be a collaborator or a competitor. Both choices are equally acceptable. If he chooses for being independent, that means he is choosing to be a competitor, it immediately means that his former scientific environment (colleagues, equipment, discussions, internal reports, …) has become off limits. Be immediately very, very clear about this.

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  1. Unregistered

    16 Jan 2009 9:30, Klaas Wynne

    Hi Ad:

    Couldn’t agree more. However, what if the funders in your country have decided that, say, nanotech is it, the country is behind in nanotech, and start pouring billions into nanotech. Should one change to the nanotech field? Pretend to do nanotech? Or be brave and ignore all this risking to get no funding? Anyway, in the UK, everybody and their uncle is now doing nano. The next big thing will be “energy”. Best wishes, Klaas

  2. Unregistered

    1 Mar 2009 11:09, Bram van Ginneken

    I’d be interested to hear what the practical difference is between a collaborator and a competitor. So if the junior person decides to be a collaborator and keeps using his former scientific environment (in my case that would be software, possibly data), what does the senior person get in return? Co-authorships?

  3. Ad Lagendijk

    9 Apr 2009 16:51, Ad Lagendijk

    Jumping bandwagons is for those who have run out of ideas themselves. Pretending is lying and that is also bad. However in many cases using slightly different language for the same thing does not hurt. In addition if one doesnot get funding the reason could well be that the proposal was weak rather than that it was rejected because it didn’t involve nanotech.

    The first and most important thing the senior gets is involvement in new science that could not have been pursued succesfully without the collaboration. And more down to earth: indeed co-authorships and other forms of credit. And certainly not just being mentioned in the acknowledgement. If the junior person does not agree he is – by my definition – a competitor.

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