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Open science and the competition-collaboration slider

There’s an excellent story on the front page of the Boston Globe today, by Carolyn Johnson, about scientists who just go ahead and blab about their data before the village elders have given them permission.


The article says:

Scientists who plunge into openness also risk giving a competing lab a leg up.

“Maybe somebody has discovered some interesting gene and doesn’t want to blab to the whole world about why it’s interesting,” said Michael Laub, an assistant professor of biology at MIT. He says his lab is not overly secretive, but does not post “all the gory details of what someone is working on, because I don’t want my grad students necessarily to be scooped by someone else.”

Laub is just saying what everyone knows.1 But the fact that everyone knows it and we’re ok with it is a sign of the problem with the system: The system we want maximizes knowledge and innovation, but the system we have swerves in order to preserve credit for individuals. From the discovery of the shape of DNA to AIDS research, we’ve seen some of the problems with the competitive model of science. But we also routinely see the benefits, as scientists work overtime in order to get credit for a discovery.

And yet, the mix seems wrong. The competitive model made more sense when it was more difficult to share data anyway. The collaborative model is proving itself in unexpected places. It’s clear that a mixed model works — some competitive, some collaborative — but it’s not clear how far we can push the slider toward the collaborative side. My hunch, and my hope, is that it’s way further than we would have thought, especially since experience shows that the satisfaction of being recognized as a continuously generous member of a network can at least equal that of authors of intermittent, officially-sanctioned publications.

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1I’m totally guessing about his, but I suspect that Laub actually talked with Johnson, the reporter, mainly about the virtues of open science, but noted that his group doesn’t give away absolutely all of its data…and it was only the last part of the sentence that made it in. As I say, I’m totally making this up, but the quotation had that sort of ring to it.

6 Responses to “Open science and the competition-collaboration slider”

  1. […] Joho the Blog Filed under Uncategorized on August 21, 2008 – Leave Your […]

  2. Seems like an issue with the incentive structure. For scientists, there are likely incentives to both ends of the slider. Credit, glory, publication may push toward competition, while standing in the community, and a larger sense of contribution to society would pull in the other.

    For any individual, the slider may be more to one side or the other depending on the institution in which the individual operates. Incentives may be culturally ingrained as well–in the field of research, the institution, or the lab setting.

    I’d guess that in science and academia there are greater incentives to collaboration than in other fields.

  3. Only half a ‘Yay’, really.

    It’s great that scientific research is being published free online – and I’m sure this will become more and more common. But, if everyone does it without going through a formal, peer-review process, it becomes untrustworthy science. Peer-review is by no means perfect, but it’s the best filtering system we’ve got.

  4. Richard, it’s not at all clear to me that formal, peer-review is THE best system. It certainly has advantages and strengths. But it also has weaknesses, including being a slow process and one that favors status quo science. Other processes have their own strengths and weaknesses.

    This is not an either/or. Do formal peer review and informal peer and arXiv and … So long as there is sufficient transparency. Metadata sets us free.

  5. Also, why do we need to wait for peer review to be complete before seeing anything about work in progress. It seems to me that the completion of initial peer review is just one, intermediate status step in a long knowledge life cycle.

    It is useful to have a workflow taxonomy where “completed initial peer review” is a meaningful and important step. Prior to “completed initial peer review”, content can be available, and cited as such.

    Following “completed initial peer review”, there is a much longer cycle of reference and commentary, where information that passed initial peer review may be cited, amplified, modified, contradicted, re-interpreted.

  6. […] we really need is to maintain a optimal compete/collaborate ratio or mix. David Weinberger writes And yet, the mix seems wrong. The competitive model made more sense when it was more difficult to […]

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