Great paradoxes in research I: Teamwork

At the end of January, our whole lab was gathered together for a photograph for an article about our Professor and his recent success in being awarded a prestigious grant. This was the first of three photography sessions by or for the BHF, on three consecutive weeks: I spoke briefly about the second last week, and the third was for a very exciting article which will be published at the beginning of May.

At this point I had only been working in the lab for five months, and I can honestly say that this was the first occasion that I’ve felt like I’m part of a team here. This is the largest group I have worked in: there are more than ten of us in our group alone; adding together our sister group, resident Fellow and his technician sends the number past twenty. Our large size, coupled with the Professors’ busy schedule, means that our regular lab meetings occur at best twice monthly, and involve a single researcher presenting nearly a year’s worth of findings. I initially found this activity quite strange, and still wonder how effective it is.

There were six researchers (postdocs and PhD students) in the lab I previously worked in as a postdoc. We had weekly lab meetings with our PI in which each of us in turn would show one or two slides detailing the experiments and results we had been working on that week. This allowed the group to discuss and to be aware of each other’s work, and allowed our PI to keep up-to-date with the direction our research was moving in. Our daily activities were driven by peer pressure in a sense, the fear of being the only one without any data to present, and meant that when one of us rejoiced in having an exciting result in the lab, the others would all be aware of exactly what that meant. We often discussed how the lab dynamic would work if the group grew any bigger. In addition, we had weekly journal clubs with two other groups who also worked on G protein-coupled receptors, which ensured we all stayed abreast of the literature, and bi-monthly meetings with a different group focussing on blood platelets. This latter meeting was much the same as the lab meetings we have in our current group, with one presenter speaking for up to an hour each session.

Not only is my current group big, our backgrounds and specialist skills are incredibly diverse: together our interests span the entire spectrum from RNA, DNA and gene transcription, through protein biochemistry and cell biology to in vivo animal models and human patients. For any one of us to keep on top of our group’s activities in all these areas would be very difficult, if not impossible and perhaps futile.

The success of a research lab and its leader is assessed, in the first instance, by its publication record. A good record reflects well on the university department or institution; research quality overall is currently assessed by the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Up until recently, the standing of the journal publishing the research (measured by the journal’s ‘impact factor’) was taken into account when assessing the quality of the research. It’s pleasing to see that this parameter is no longer considered, since researchers are increasingly choosing to publish papers in journals based on other criteria, including the opportunity for open access and the publishing costs involved.

Nevertheless, the success of a single researcher, when applying for jobs in other labs or for their own funding, is measured according to the part they have played in previous research projects. This is reflected firstly in the order one’s name appears on their published papers, and secondly by the presentation of posters and talks at conferences. The convention for scientific papers is for the researcher who has led the project, likely done the majority of the experimental work, written the paper and driven the project direction, to be named as the ‘first author’. In some cases, two researchers may have contributed equally to a project, in which case they will be named ‘joint first author’. The ‘last author’ is most usually the head of the laboratory, the PI and person responsible for gaining the funding for the project. Between the first and last author, subsequent authors are named in descending order according to their contribution to the project.

I had always imagined this to be quite a simple convention: my PhD project was contributed to by a technician and a couple of undergraduate students, and so I was named as first author on both papers, the technician second, the undergraduate third and my supervisor last. During my first postdoc position, I began to see how this structure wasn’t always so simple: I worked on a project as part of a consortium of research labs at different universities, each with their own specialism. For each manuscript, there appeared to be intense discussion over whose contribution was larger and more significant in terms of the findings gleaned. In the end, a compromise had to be reached so that often the first and last authors would be PIs from different labs, with postdocs arranged in the middle according to how well each PI could fight for them. The obvious problem for an individual working on this kind of project is that although the paper may get published in a higher quality journal due to the breadth of experimental techniques and the significance of the findings, and although the researcher may have led the project in their own lab, they may not be awarded first authorship. Here, the advantage would be to stay with the consortium for a long time (perhaps five years or more) to ensure that one’s ‘turn’ eventually comes and that one is finally named as the first author.

You can now see the paradox emerging: although teamwork is beneficial, since it combines a variety of skills from different researchers, improving the global impact of the work, the individual’s own career might not receive as much benefit due to the compromise over first author papers. Whether this kind of collaboration also enables the researcher to gain additional skills might also be under debate, since these skills might merely be sourced by bringing in additional research groups to the consortium.

A similar paradox can also be seen within a single, large research group. On a personal level, a good team player helps out their colleagues, volunteers information and resources (for example, cell lines). This ensures the individual integrates well into the laboratory, is sociable, makes friends easily and gets invited to the pub after work. However, no matter how small, these ventures always come at a price. Although helping out one’s colleagues secures one’s name on many research papers (albeit as third or forth author, or lower), often time and resources are taken away from the researcher’s own project, pushing the publication date of their research further and further back, or possibly placing publication in the first place into doubt.

On the other hand, an individual may take the opposite stand, assuming a position of being unapproachable, unwilling to discuss ideas for fear of wasting time and, worse, for fear of loss of ownership. This researcher might hide reagents, labelling bottles in codes so that they are not used by others. This method may be an inefficient use of grant money and resources, when several researchers could be using the same bottle of reagent so that as much as possible is used before its expiry date, but benefits the individual since they will never set up an experiment only to find that all the reagents required have been used up and not been re-ordered. This latter way of working is no doubt the more stressful and lonely, yet it could guarantee the continued success of the researcher’s own scientific career.

In our lab, there appear to be other forces involved including favouritism and bartering. I was recently told by my PI that although, being a molecular biologist, I would never be awarded first author on the paper I am currently working on, I might be able to argue my way up the authorship rankings if I contributed some good ideas to the project. So at least that’s good to know.

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