Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs

Fri, 04/01/2022 - 11:24
10 sencillas reglas para fomentar laboratorios de investigación saludables

Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs


The CIMCYC is carrying out a series of actions to improve the working environment in the center. Within these, Isabel Peralta, who collaborates from the Psychology Clinic with Humbelina Robles and Juan Manuel Quesada in activities to improve the wellbeing of doctoral students, has shared useful information for all CIMCYC research staff.

The article entitled 'Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs' was published in 2019 in the journal PLOS Computational Biology by Fernando Maestre, PhD in Biology from the University of Alicante (UA) and director of the Laboratory of Arid Zones and Global Change. In the article he highlights the negative effects of a climate of extreme competitiveness in academia and presents 10 simple rules to address them and make the environment enriching, collaborative and people-centered:

Rule number 1: Promote the well-being of lab personnel.

That work efficiency is enhanced when people is happy is widely studied and supported. There are several steps that can be taken in this regard in our laboratories: put yourself in other people's shoes; be friendly; prohibit all forms of harassment and discrimination; be sensitive when dealing with compromised personal, family and health situations; and listen carefully to any issues that may improve the well-being of the group.

Rule number 2: Let people manage their work schedule.

You should not strictly control the schedules of lab members by being flexible with their work preferences. Sometimes it is more effective to stay at home when analyzing data and writing papers or to balance work and family obligations. Laboratories can facilitate these options by considering the outcome of scientists' work rather than the time they spend at their place of work. Providing flexibility in setting one's own schedule does not eliminate the obligation of managers to provide adequate supervision by holding regular meetings with staff to check on the progress of the work.

Rule number 3: Gratitude is a sign of a noble soul.

It is essential to show appreciation to lab members because their work, from bookkeeping by administrative assistants to data collection by technicians to manuscript writing by students, is crucial to ensure the smooth functioning of the group. Directors can show lab members how important their work is by providing prompt comments to their requests, questions, and manuscript drafts.

Rule number 4: Treat staff as teammates.

It is not uncommon to find laboratories with clearly established vertical hierarchies. This structuring can promote toxic relationships and limits the ability of staff to think critically. Of course, directors should guide research priorities and have the final say on multiple issues. However, treating people as mere executors of orders rather than colleagues who have an informed opinion is a major missed opportunity. The opinions and advice of technicians and students should be listened to and taken seriously, and ideas for projects and papers, laboratory procedures, and day-to-day problems that affect their work and well-being should be discussed often with them.

Rule number 5: Create a collaborative environment.

Collaborations within the lab can be fostered by establishing common projects, meetings and discussions that involve the whole group, providing time and resources to develop parallel projects and/or ideas that arise from them, holding regular meetings outside the lab, and facilitating interactions between students. Setting priorities and identifying needs in advance, knowing how to organize the group's work, and being polite in the way we ask for help when needed also contribute to establishing effective collaborations.

Rule number 6: Remember that each person in the lab is unique.

A key aspect for a director to follow is not to compare people to each other or to ourselves when we were students. Comparison can increase stress and/ or anxiety levels, reducing performance and well-being. Everyone is different and a manager should never forget that his or her mentoring role is to foster everyone's capabilities and help them reach their potential and career ambitions.

Rule number 7: Respect working hours and vacations.

Commonly enforced work rules in laboratories around the world often result in academics working all day, on weekends and even during vacations. The stress associated with this overwork is one of the main reasons for the increase in mental health problems in academia, particularly among junior researchers and young directors. Laboratory members should not be expected to work beyond normal working hours or on weekends and holidays. We all face times when we must work hard, but this should be the exception rather than the rule.

Rule number 8: Give credit where credit is due.

We have all experienced or heard of editors who dictate the inclusion of individuals or the order of authorship, or who insist on authorship of all articles in the lab, regardless of their contribution. This practice only benefits those in power, discourages effective collaborations, undermines productivity and creativity, and fosters frustration and distrust among non-managers. There are several ways to give credit appropriately, including the participation of technicians in publications when they have contributed to them, leaving "senior" positions (last authorship) to postdocs when they had the idea for the study and are not the first authors, declining authorship in articles in which they do not participate, and acknowledging in talks with colleagues, seminars and scientific meetings the intellectual authorship of publications or ideas coming from laboratory members.

Rule number 9: Destigmatize failure and celebrate success.

Initiatives to normalize failure include building "a CV of failures," talking openly and sharing experiences about failure, and discussing with lab members the potential reasons for a particular rejection and how to avoid it next time. Showing lab personnel that rejection is the rule, rather than the exception, will help them navigate the turbulent waters of research, reduce the prevalence of "imposter syndrome" and increase self-confidence. On the other hand, because successes are not as common, they should be celebrated appropriately when they happen.

Rule number 10: Promote the professional development of laboratory staff.

Being informed and openly discussing the pros and cons of all possible career options can foster staff development. Managers should also allow time and resources to be made available for laboratory members who wish to pursue a scientific career to be trained in critical areas such as experimental design, statistical analysis, and scientific writing. In addition, students should be allowed to supervise graduate and master's degree work on their own or co-supervise, and postdocs should be offered the opportunity to co-supervise new doctoral students. In doing so, they gain key experience on how to supervise students' work, a fundamental task in academia.



Maestre, F. T. (2019). Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs. PLOS Computational Biology, 15(4), e1006914.

Related references:

Instrucciones para ser feliz en el laboratorio: https://www.muyinteresante.es/ciencia/articulo/instrucciones-para-ser-feliz-en-el-laboratorio-361557833084

How a lab happiness programme is helping me through the COVID-19 crisis: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01686-x