I gave a speech last week at PCST-10 (the 10th conference of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology), held at Malmö University, Sweden. The talk was titled “Should science communication be collaborative?” A few items:
Should science communication be collaborative? There are two ways to understand this question, and so also two very different reactions to it. One reaction is that science writing already is very collaborative. Scientific articles are typically co-written by labs or by other collections of colleagues, because most experiments cannot be done by just one person; scientific discoveries are now typically made by several or many people cooperating. So, of course science communication should be collaborative.
The other reaction understands me to be talking about collaboration in the wiki sense, or what I call radical collaboration. And to that question there are typically mixed reactions. On the one hand, what Wikipedia has done is very exciting, and if scientists can tap into the same sort of collaboration, perhaps great things will result. On the other hand, scientists and scholars in general are very suspicious of the notion that anybody can edit our words. Many scholars scoff at Wikipedia’s motto—”you can edit this page”—as incontrovertible evidence that it cannot be very reliable.
But first, it will be useful to draw a distinction between two kinds of scientific communication: original and derivative. Original communication is aimed at advancing knowledge in the field with never-before-published findings, discoveries, first-hand accounts, survey data, theories, arguments, proofs, and so forth. Typically, such communication takes the form of papers in peer-reviewed journals and online pre-print services, as well as conference presentations, posters, and some other things. By contrast, derivative communication merely sums up what is already known, and takes the form of news and encyclopedia articles, textbooks, and popular science books and magazines.
I draw this distinction because I think that we might actually wish to give different answers to the question, “Should science communication be collaborative?” based on what type of science communication we’re talking about. In particular, I think it is very plausible that derivative science communication, like encyclopedia articles and science news reporting, are much more amenable to collaboration than original science communication.
Over the last few years, I have conversed with dozens of scholars and scientists about how to set up wikis or other collaborative knowledge communities. There is a fascinating pattern to these conversations. They go like this. The scientist, impressed by the vast quantities of information in Wikipedia, tells me: “It is amazing what can be accomplished when many people come together, from around the world, to sum up what is known. What would happen if we tried this in our field? The resulting resource could be a central, authoritative clearing-house of information for everyone in the field, as well as for the general public. So, what is the best way to set up ‘a Wikipedia’ in our field?”
This is an interesting question, but it is not the question that they end up answering. Instead, the scientist goes off and consults with his colleagues, and then I hear this: “We have a couple of concerns. First, we are concerned about lack of credit in the Wikipedia system. The careers of scientists depend on names being on their publications. So we want to make sure that authors are properly named and identified on articles. Second, we are a little nervous about the idea that just anybody can edit anybody’s articles. We understand that it’s important to be collaborative, but we think it is reasonable to nominate a lead author or lead reviewer for each article, and restrict participation to experts. So, what do you think of that?”
I think that the scientist and his colleagues are confused in a fascinating way. I try to be diplomatic when I say this, of course. But the scientist seems not to realize two facts:
1. If you name authors, you award lead authorship or editorship for articles, and you carefully restrict who may participate, then you are not building a collaborative community in anything like the radical sense. You are merely using a wiki to replicate an older sort of collaboration, common in scientific writing.
2. It is precisely the newer, more radical sort of collaboration that explains Wikipedia’s success. Wikipedia is successful in large part precisely because everyone feels empowered to edit any article. If you disempower people, they won’t show up.
As a result, there is no reason to think that the scientist’s group will enjoy success anything like Wikipedia’s, because they have actually rejected the Wikipedia model.
Do those scientists, who have rejected the Wikipedia model, have a legitimate complaint about it? Or have they made a mistake in rejecting it? I think they are partly right in rejecting the Wikipedia model, but also partly mistaken.
Given enough time, an article that is written with a large and diverse set of authors—particularly if it is under the gentle guidance of experts—can be expected to be lengthier, broader in its coverage, and fairer in its presentation of issues, than an article written by a single or a few hand-chosen authors. It will be longer, because many collaborators will compete with each other to expand the article. It will be broader in its coverage, because the collaborators often can fill up gaps in exposition that others leave. It will be fairer in its presentation of issues, because self-selecting collaborators in a very open project will tend to have a diversity of views, and they must compromise in order to work together at all.
In fact, beyond issues of feasibility or difficulty, I detect an incoherence in the very idea that original research might be radically collaborative. The act of publishing a research paper does more than merely convey some findings; it also stakes a claim, that is, it has the force or effect of attaching some definite name or names to the findings. To make original science communication radically collaborative would be to nullify the act of taking credit. If we were to list as co-authors people who are not responsible for the research, the author list would not longer be honoring those people actually responsible for the finding. It would just be a list of people who happened to work on the paper that summed up the research, even if some of the people listed had none of the thoughts or conclusions contained in the paper.
One might say that open collaboration on communication of original research would help to elaborate the full range of arguments and analysis releated to the research. But that already happens, I suppose, in the give-and-take of scientific and scholarly conversation that happens before and after a paper is published. Indeed, it has often been observed that science and scholarship generally are massively collaborative in the sense that researchers build on each others’ work; it was Newton who pointed this out when he said that he saw farther only because he stood on the shoulders of giants. I have no doubt that new Internet methods can and already do facilitate this very old sort of scientific collaboration. But I see no need, in addition, to permit others, who had nothing to do with some research, to participate in the writing itself of original research findings.
That said, there is at least one way that original science communication might be amenable to radical collaboration: I mean what has been called “open research” and “open science.” As I understand it, this involves inviting others to participate actively in a study—not merely collaborating on the writing, but actually doing the research for, designing, and performing experiments, surveys, and so forth. This is something I know very little about, and I will not embarrass myself by pretending to know more than I do. An example of such research, perhaps, was the lightning-fast investigation in multiple labs that identified the avian flu virus. Such research can be somewhat open and self-selecting. So perhaps that is one sense, and a very interesting sense, in which original science communication can be radically collaborative. I’m afraid I can’t presume to say anything else about that, though.
Hope you find it interesting.