Do scientists work too hard?

Study looks at which countries have the hardest-working scientists – and those most likely to work outside of ‘normal hours’

[caption align="alignright"]Richard Primack, PhD, does field work in Concord, Massachusetts.Richard Primack, PhD, does field work in Massachusetts.[/caption]

Dr. Richard B. Primack ( is a professor in the Department of Biology at Boston University and Editor-in-Chief of Biological Conservation, an Elsevier journal focusing on the protection of biodiversity. He studies the effects of climate change on the plants and animals of Massachusetts using the observations of Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s as a starting point.

Here, he writes about a study he co-authored in Biological Conservation titled "Are conservation biologists working too hard? He worked with lead author Dr. Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, Associate Professor in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, and Dr. Lian Pin Koh, Assistant Professor of Applied Ecology and Conservation at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and an Editor of Biological Conservation.


It would be glorious to see mankind at leisure for once. It is nothing but work, work, work. I think that there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business. — Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau thought that people worked too hard and did not have enough time to devote to the really important things in life.

To find out how hard scientists actually work, my colleagues Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, Lian Pin Koh and I analyzed the day and time of submission for 10,000 manuscript submissions and almost 15,000 reviews sent to the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

[caption align="alignleft" width="400"]Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, lead author of the study, reviews a manuscript while traveling to a field site in Malaysia.Professor Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, lead author of the study, reviews a manuscript while traveling to a field site in Malaysia.[/caption]

Our results showed that these scientists do a substantial amount their work late at night (16% of the manuscripts) and on weekends (11% of the manuscripts and 12% of the reviews); and that this work outside of normal hours has been increasing at about 5% to 6% per year.

Japanese and Mexican scientists stood out for working late at night and Chinese and Indian scientists worked far more than average on weekends. In contrast, Belgian and Norwegian scientists did not work much on weekends, and Finnish scientists did not work at night. American and British scientists had average work habits, working moderate amounts on weekends and evenings.

Overall this study shows that conservation biologists and potentially other scientists and academics do a considerable amount of their work outside regular working hours. This can negatively affect the scientists' life-work balance, impacting relationships with family and friends, physical exercise, or just resting time.

We concluded that universities and scientific institutions need to take steps to ensure that scientists find the right balance between work and personal life, and do not feel compelled to sacrifice one at the expense of the other.

On a humorous note, we admit that this study was conducted entirely without any grant support and largely after regular working hours ― mostly on holidays and weekends ― resulting in the unfortunate neglect of our families and loved ones.Of course, is it possible that conservation biologists just like what we are doing and for us it is not work. After all, Thoreau must have spent lots of his evenings and weekends writing the 2 million words in his journals.[divider]


Read the study

The study — "Are conservation biologists working too hard? — was published as an open-access editorial in the journal Biological Conservation, with access to the data provided by Elsevier.[/caption]

[note color="#f1f9fc" position="center" width=800 margin=10 align="alignnone"]

On a personal note …

Alisma Campos-Arceiz, PhD
I have been struggling with my own life-work balance over the past few years. This life-work balance struggle seems to be very common in modern academia and, as we point out in the paper, it can have negative effects on the quality of the research being done and researchers' personal lives. Working on this study forced me to be more reflective about my own working habits – now I allocate more time for family and non-work activities than I used to.
— Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, PhD[divider]

Richard B. Primack, PhD

Until we saw the data, I thought Americans were about the hardest working scientists in the world, but they are about average. In my own case, I am pretty much working all of the time, other than when I am occupied with family and friends or exercising.

— Richard B. Primack, PhD[divider]

Lian Pin Koh

Most conservation biologists are great at what they do in the lab and in the field, but are often terrible at knowing when to stop working. Part of the problem is that we just don't think of it as work! That is why I always appreciate my wife for yelling at me to get out of the office and back home for dinner.
— Lian Pin Koh, PhD [/note]
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11 Archived Comments

Mark Costello October 4, 2013 at 12:30 am

Ditto! Add-on travel to work meetings over weekends, evenings and even nights ....

Marian Wong October 6, 2013 at 7:44 am

I wonder if you account for the time spent thinking about work even when not actually putting pen to paper per se! Hard to quantify this additional component, but I do sometimes wonder whether scientists ever truly stop working..

Temin Payum October 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Really, we must appreciate those scientist who sacrifice their social and personal life; but if we can, why should not we?, as life is too short to contribute something to the mother earth and her dependants, rather let us follow those hard working researchers.

Philip Cafaro October 6, 2013 at 5:27 pm

Nice to see the insights of Thoreau "put to work" in this new context. It is worth remembering, too, that many of our environmental problems, including global climate change, stem from excessive energy use: human beings ramping up "the work" we demand from both ourselves and the natural world.

Richard Primack October 8, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Marian makes a good point here. If I talk with my family members about my research while having dinner, is that work-time or family-time? And if I am at a party or out for a walk where I am talking with my friends about my research, is that also work-time?

Reply October 8, 2013 at 4:18 pm

a person with outstanding of honor must spend outstanding hour. That is in essence a honor itself.

Epalette October 19, 2013 at 7:48 am

Mostly they don't think of it as work , its a passion so they spends lots and lots of hours without knowing it.

Shashank October 19, 2013 at 4:34 pm

With improvisation of technology, most of our work has been easier than it was before. I truly respect the work done by earlier scientists back in the 1950's or so. Eric Pianka, a famous lizard ecologist in his talk mentioned how valuable graph papers were. He said, "graph papers were so valuable that one would hide it from their colleagues!"

Libby November 4, 2013 at 8:14 pm

This raises the question, "what is work?" If writing about science and nature is an enjoyable experience for someone, then perhaps it would be consuming their time even if they were not getting paid to do it. Likewise with field work or teaching or another requirement of research and employment. If Richard Primack finds himself discussing research in his free time, then maybe his research is equally personal interest as it is occupation.

Alison Bert, Editor-in-Chief November 4, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Libby, you make a good point. It's certainly a privilege to have a career that's enjoyable and fascinating. It may also be that being a scientist — as with most professions — requires a certain amount of "grunt work," like applying for grants or cleaning up the lab. Therefore, time "off" may be some of the only time they have to talk about the really fascinating parts of their work.

Richard Primack November 4, 2013 at 11:00 pm

I often regard myself as lucky as I get paid to do what I enjoy doing. I genuinely take pleasure carrying out field research and then writing about it afterwards. For me, research is both work and a hobby. However, I can honestly say that I also spend lots of time family and with my personal interests (music, sports, volunteering, etc).

Les Kaufman November 6, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Our work really is obsessive, and that's a good thing up to a point, so long as we don't starve, let our inclusive fitness fall to zero, or become complete social isolates. I always thought that this obsessiveness, this deep life investment, is what distinguishes a profession from a job. In many other professions, however, the compensation rate is more commensurate with the contribution to society. I would make more out of this but when I hang with my conservation science peers in the developing world, living as they live, that does take some of the wind out of my "pay me more!" sails.

Richard Primack November 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Kaufman raises the issue that scientists are often not paid as much as other highly educated professions. The difference is that we greatly enjoy what we do and we make our own schedules. Based on published reports and my own experience, many of our lawyer, doctor and banker colleagues don't really enjoy or take satisfaction in their work and feel trapped in high-pressure schedules.

Zoe Panchen November 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm

I agree with others that often we do not stop working and our greatest ideas and best problem solving occurs outside of the office, the light bulb often comes on while cycling or doing something unrelated to work. In my experience some of our best work ideas are often formulating while chatting informally at the coffee machine or down at the pub. I have worked in both North America and Europe and my perception is that Europeans work steadily and methodically forward while North Americans race around at great speed but not always in a forward direction.


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