The first time I collected data was exciting. It was hard work, but it was one tiny step forward in scientific knowledge. However, after several years of studying the neuroscience of addiction, I have come to realize that research – the pursuit of data and its related products, the published paper and grant – is often so compulsive that it seems awfully similar to the addictions that I was trying to model in the lab.
Like drug addiction, data addiction is a chronic relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive data-seeking that persists despite adverse consequences. It may involve tolerance, where more data is required to achieve the desired mood, or cravings and withdrawals if data has not been acquired for an extended period of time.
A research career is often not just a job, but an all-consuming lifestyle. Consider the case of Maura Gillison, one of the talented scientists who discovered that human papillomavirus causes cervical cancer. At one point, she reportedly worked for 18 months without taking a day off. In my own field, working every day for a few months at a time is normal since rats don’t take vacations. But the continuous and prolonged grind can easily lead to stress, burnout and social isolation.
And, as their career progresses, the researcher begins to build tolerance. At first, simply being an author on a paper is thrilling; during graduate school, publishing once every year or two is exciting. But once a postdoc, the thrill is diminished, and papers need to be more numerous or in more prestigious journals to be satisfying. For principal investigators, the appetite for data can no longer be satisfied simply by collecting data themselves. Instead, they seek ever bigger grants to ensure that they are constantly supplied with data from their students, staff and a growing network of collaborators.
But, in research, things often don’t go well for extended periods of time. It is during these times that withdrawal symptoms can set in. The researcher may become anxious and agitated about when they will be getting data for their next big paper or grant. They might be aware that there is a big world out there with numerous jobs for intelligent people, but their hunger for data drives them back to the lab or the field, and away from opportunities that could lead to higher pay, more reasonable working hours or better conditions. Researchers can experience data cravings so powerful that even after breaking from a traumatic PhD experience, they will return to research (i.e., relapse) even if it means starting a new PhD elsewhere.
Many researchers are satisfied with their jobs, but a significant proportion are working under highly stressful conditions. Just as most people who drink alcohol do not have an alcohol addiction, an individual researcher does not necessarily have a data addiction. But knowing that data can be addictive can help us to identify when our own research habits are becoming maladaptive or harmful.
Researchers can try to ensure that they maintain relationships with friends and family who aren’t in academia. Studies have shown that social isolation, as well as the wrong kind of social networks, can promote drug use. So, it seems likely the best approach is for researchers to ensure that they maintain non-academic social connections to ensure that they can get a reality check from people who aren’t also at risk of data addiction.
Some self-awareness of symptoms also appears to help people with addiction to seek treatment. Researchers should therefore try to be aware of how their data-seeking impacts their mood. For example, if time away from the lab or the field causes excessive anxiety or guilt over work not done, then this may be a sign that it is time to find help.
Fortunately, help is available from friends, family, peers, mentors, career counsellors and mental health professionals. For addiction therapists, a “successful” treatment could be defined as complete abstinence or a reduction in substance use to non-harmful levels. Similarly, it is up to the researcher, in consultation with their confidants and counsellors, to decide whether to follow a new career path or whether work-life balance within research is possible.
Data addiction is a harmful disorder that can leave researchers stressed, anxious and socially isolated. But it doesn’t have to be this way. By recognizing the symptoms, we can help ourselves and our colleagues to get informal or professional help to ensure that they can have a career that is fulfilling but not all-consuming.
Shaun Khoo is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of pharmacology and physiology at Université de Montréal.