Mavericks versus team players: The trade-off between shared glory and making a personal contribution
Bruce G. Charlton
Medical Hypotheses. 2008; 71: 165-167.
The modern world is characterized by progressive specialization of function and ever-larger-scale coordination of these ever-more-specialized functions. More and more of science is done by increasing-sized teams of specialists, and the ability to engage in ‘teamwork’ is regarded as an almost essential attribute for most scientists. But teamwork does not suit all personality types. Some ‘maverick’ individuals would rather have personal credit for a relatively modest scientific contribution which they achieved (mostly) by themselves, than a share of credit in a much larger scientific contribution generated by a large team. The present system of medical science is organized to discourage mavericks and, on the whole, this is probably justifiable on the basis that scientists are not natural team players. Extra inducements are necessary to get people to adopt the relatively self-effacing behaviours necessary for building the large organizations of complementary specialists that are necessary for tackling many of the most intractable modern scientific problems. However, an ethos of teamwork does carry substantial disadvantages. Although most scientists are dispensable, and do not make a significant personal contribution, the very best scientists do make a difference to the rate of progress of science. And top notch scientists are wasted as team players. The very best scientists can function only as mavericks because they are doing science for vocational reasons. The highest intensity of personal commitment requires individual rewards from distinctive contributions. In conclusion, the current incentive system that encourages teamwork involves a trade-off. The majority of modestly talented scientists can probably achieve more when working as members of a team. But the very best scientists probably need to work as mavericks.
Science, like most aspects of the modern world, is characterized by progressive specialization of function and ever-larger-scale coordination of these ever-more-specialized functions.
This applies to scientific careers also. More and more of science is done by increasing-sized teams of specialists, and the ability to engage in ‘teamwork’ is regarded as an almost essential attribute for most scientists.
So far, so good. But one consequence of teamwork may be a reduced sense of personal satisfaction for the individual scientist. The direction of research is often dictated by the availability of grants, specific work content and patterns may be scheduled by the needs of the team, interpretation may be a group affair, and publication a compromise between multiple authors (not to mention the potential for further distortion by referees and editors). And the glory from any resulting scientific attainments will also be shared.
This situation resembles that which Karl Marx termed ‘alienation’; in which the ‘worker’ is separated from the product, and where the need to perform as a cog in a complex machine of production strips ‘labour’ of its intrinsic satisfactions.
Of course, for many people there are other sources of satisfaction from scientific work such as (perhaps most importantly) wages, a relatively great degree of discretion in organizing work, the social life of the laboratory, and the satisfactions of a job well done. Nonetheless for some people this is not enough. Those who were drawn into science by a sense of vocation may feel that the life of a typical modern scientist fails to satisfy their yearning to make a personal contribution.
Teamwork is, more-or-less, the mainstream mode of modern medical science; but it does not suit all personality types. Not everyone is a ‘team player’ and there are some ‘maverick’ individuals who would (perhaps selfishly) rather have personal credit for a relatively modest scientific contribution which they achieved (mostly) by themselves, than a share of credit in a much larger scientific contribution generated by a large team.
In general, it could be predicted that working as a maverick increases an individual’s potential maximum contribution to science (by generating greater personal motivation); but working as a team player is on avearage more efficient overall.
There is not much doubt that the present system of medical science is organized to discourage mavericks. On the whole, this is probably justifiable on the basis that scientists (and human beings in general) are not naturally team players, so that extra inducements are necessary to get people to adopt the relatively self-effacing behaviours necessary in building the large organizations of complementary specialists that are necessary for tackling many of the most intractable modern scientific problems. However, an ethos of teamwork does carry substantial disadvantages.
The most important way that team players are rewarded over mavericks is the practice of multiple counting. This works at every level in the scientific process.
For instance, everyone associated with a successful grant award typically states the full amount of the grant to their own credit (and not, for example, the amount of the grant divided by all the other grant holders). An unspecified share of a high-profile multi-centre ten million dollar grant (running over several years) sounds very impressive – and this credit is to some extent accrued by all the team players. By contrast, the lone maverick might have attained a much less-impressive-sounding annual grant of one hundred thousand dollars.
However, using another mode of calculation, a maverick’s 100K dollars per year might equal or exceed each team players individual share of a highly publicized lump-sum of ten million pounds, when the money is spread over several institutions and several years. Furthermore, the maverick has control of who is appointed to jobs, and the specific work they do – while a team player may find that these decisions are made by committees over which s/he has little influence.
Credit for publications is another system that rewards team players above mavericks. In round numbers it seems likely that the average production of scientific papers per author has been about one per year for many decades – but the average number of publications credited to each scientist has increased due to larger numbers of authors on each publication.
This implies that a maverick author who publishes two or three single-author papers per year is probably high-performing; yet this productivity can (apparently) be swamped by a large team players who may (with the same, or less, amount of work) have a share in maybe a dozen publications per year – with perhaps one as first author. After a few years the team player may have accumulated a hundred-plus publications while even a gifted maverick may still number just a dozen or so single-author publications.
A further aspect of grant-getting and publication relates to the statistics of small numbers. An individual scientist working (mostly) alone and averaging (say) a grant every two to four years and two or three papers per years would expect – by sheer chance – to have some ‘lean years’: gaps of several years with no grants, and several years with no publications. If a promotion or job application happens to fall during one of these randomly occurring lean years it might-well look bad; as if the maverick had burned-out and become unproductive.
By contrast, an similarly productive team player who worked as part of a ten-plus person team (of similarly productive people) would have these extreme fluctuations in productivity averaged-out, and would not be expected to suffer any lean years without grants or publications. When the time comes for applying for jobs or promotions, the team player can be assured of a decent recent CV.
Does it matter that the current mode of medical science encourages team players at the expense of mavericks? Mostly not, because the harsh truth is that most scientists are dispensable, and most do not make a significant personal contribution. However, the very best scientists do make a difference to the rate of progress of science. And top notch scientists are wasted as team players.
My guess is that the very best scientists can function only as mavericks; in charge of their own activities, or else as collaborators working on a scientific problem with just one other equal partner. The reason is that great scientists are doing science for vocational reasons; and the highest intensity of personal commitment absolutely needs individual rewards from distinctive contributions.
If correct, this means that we need to recognize the downside of current incentives that encourage teamwork in modern medical science. There is a trade-off. Modestly talented people can probably achieve more when working as members of a team. But the kind of intensely vocational motivation necessary for the highest level of scientific work is not an attribute of team players. To have a chance of achieving their greatest potential, the most-talented scientists need to work as mavericks.