On Struggle and Competition in Scientific Fields

Webpage for an essay by Oded Goldreich


What is the difference between struggling for achievements and competing for success? What is the effect of competitions on a scientific field? What are the specific implications on TOC? In this opinionated essay, I address these questions and related issues, while rooting the discussion in an appropriate theoretical framework.

Introductory Comments

The current essay is only remotely related to my essay On the status of intellectual values in TOC.

The notions of struggle and competition are often confused. Ditto regarding achievement and success. Of course, my issue is not with the semantics of (the colloquial meaning of) these words, but rather with fundamentally different situations which can be identified by referring to these words.

Loosely speaking, by struggle I mean an inherent conflict between different people who attempt to achieve various goals and positions relative to a given setting. That is, the achievements determine the outcome of the struggle. In contrast, by competitions I mean artificial constructs that are defined on top of the basic setting, while not being inherent to it, and success typically refer to winning these competitions. That is, success is determined by the outcome of the competition.

Of course, once these competitions are introduced, the setting changes; that is, a new setting is constructed in which these competitions are an inherent part. Still, in some cases - most notably in scientific fields, one may articulate in what sense the original (or basic) setting is better that the modified setting (i.e., the setting modified by competitions). These issues as well as related ones are the topic of the current essay.

The core of the essay is Section 2.1, which provides a theoretical framework in which all these notions are discussed. This framework is used in Sections 2.2 and 2.3, which revisit familiar issues such as the evolution of the FOCS/STOC conferences, the effects of awards, and why is excessive competition bad. In particular, I trace several negative social phenomena in TOC to the growing dominance of various competitions in TOC. In Section 3, I discuss the possibility of reversing the course of this evolution and reducing the dominance of competitions in TOC.

Indeed, I have expressed similar opinions regarding the evolution of FOCS/STOC and awards in the past, but I feel that the framework presented in Section 2.1 provides a better articulation of these opinions as well as a wider perspective on them. Actually, my first, initial, and most important goal in writing this essay is to clarify to myself and to other interested readers a few issues that are quite central to our professional life. My hope that I may contribute to a change in hearts, and then to a change in reality, only comes second.

Material available on-line

I was referred to a somewhat related presentation that raises similar issues regarding the evolution of conferences in the data base community. The presentation is by Jeff Naughton, and can be obtained from HERE; pages 15-19 and 38-63 seem most relevant. Let me stress that I do not agree with all that it says.

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