John Tierney wants to know - how widespread is the problem of unethical competition in science? Here's the problem explained by Dr Sean Cutler on Tierney's blog:

Sadly, there is a lot of unethical competition that goes on in science. This year alone, I have heard of cases that are the scientific equivalent of insider trading, where reviewers of important papers exploit their access to privileged data to gain unfair advantages in the “race” to the next big discovery. I have heard of researchers being ignored when they request published materials from scientists.

Not sending materials described in papers or exploiting privileged information is a clear violation of journal policies, but unethical behavior of this kind is common in science and is usually perpetrated with a proud smile in the name of “competition.” (Just read Jim Watson’s “Double Helix” if you want more evidence of what I am talking about!)

This happens - a lot. It seems to vary by field (some fields are much more cooperative than others), but unfortunately this kind of crappy behavior is common.

The problem can be worse when a field tends to get too crowded, or the solutions to problems have become semi-obvious - meaning that you really do have lots of people racing to a finish line, rather than struggling in the wilderness.

Personally, I like to go hiking in the wilderness where there are fewer people around and less groupthink.

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