By Joern Fischer
Bigger is better in academic reward structures: more grants, more students, more papers, more impact factor. But is there a limit to how big research groups (or “labs”) ought to be? What are the pros and cons of big, medium, or large research groups in terms of producing quality science, scientific credibility, and a happy working environment?
I figured thinking through this could be interesting, but as you will see, I didn’t get very far! Let’s start with very small research groups. Small groups can produce very good science if the individual researchers are very good. This might be especially the case for subjects where it is not necessary to draw on many different kinds of expertise, or where individuals work largely on their own. Here, it’s really largely the quality of the individual researchers that matters. If they’re very good, the science produced will be very good – and nobody would have any doubts about its credibility. On the other hand, if the individuals are weak in some areas, there are few opportunities to buffer one another in such a situation (e.g. if there are three people, and none of the three is good at statistics, then the statistics ends up … well, just not very good!). And complex subject matters, which require multiple different perspectives probably can’t be dealt with very well in extremely small research groups.
Medium-sized groups then … the most obvious advantage here is individuals can buffer one another more effectively, and there are more opportunities for mutual learning and collaboration. There is also the chance of having the beginnings of a “critical mass” of people who collectively can push forward a common approach or idea. In medium-sized groups, communication within the group is still quite straightforward, and the potential for people to be happy (in a social sense) is quite high.
What about really big groups? Well, they are clearly the most prolific. A glance at google scholar suggests that several of the world’s leading conservation scientists now produce over 50 publications a year, for example. So, is this the way to go, something to be frowned upon – or just something that needs to be managed very carefully? To start with, I guess the benefit of having a critical mass cannot be denied in such big groups. They are basically “centres”, though often somewhat more coherent in subject area because they are run by a single senior academic. On the downside, various risks also increase in really large groups. There’s a risk that the quality of the individual researchers in the group can’t be consistently high – it’s more difficult to hire large numbers of truly excellent people all at the same time than to hire a small number of truly excellent people. And then there’s the risk that people will be impressed by, but at the same time cynical, about very large groups: can anyone really contribute meaningfully to more than 50 papers a year? (I’m not sure, but I am sure that many people would say “no”!) And finally, there’s also the risk that overall group cohesion is lower, partly because communication within a large group is much more difficult. And so, very large groups in reality often split into a number of smaller sub-groups.
In the end then, if such sub-groups are working well, there is no reason to believe that large groups should be inherently less pleasant to be part of than small ones. They might even be particularly nice because they have a critical mass of like-minded people. If their governance is organized sensibly, perhaps large groups are in fact the best research environments … ? Or perhaps it’s small groups for some purposes, and larger ones for other purposes?
As I’m approaching the end of this blog post, I have not reached a definitive conclusion on what to make of academic group sizes. Perhaps size is just not an interesting feature in its own right: perhaps it’s how the group is run that matters in terms of the quality of the science and the workplace atmosphere … I’d be interested in people’s thoughts! What do you think, and what are your experiences with small versus large research groups?