Do scientists work too hard?

Posted on March 31, 2015 by


Elsevier (3 October 2013); by Richard B. Primack — Study looks at which countries have the hardest-working scientists – and those most likely to work outside of ‘normal hours’.

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.

Richard Primack, PhD, does field work in Massachusetts.

Richard Primack, PhD, does field work in Massachusetts.

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.

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.