When not to cooperate

In an essay called Peer and non-peer review, Andrew Odlyzko pooh-poohs the fear that blogging (although he doesn't call it that) will undermine the classical system of scholarly peer review:

With the development of more flexible communication systems, especially the Internet, we are moving towards a continuum of publication. I have argued, starting with [3] 1, that this requires a continuum of peer review, which will provide feedback to scholars about articles and other materials as they move along the continuum, and not just in the single journal decision process stage.

Obviously I agree. I'm not a scientist, but when asked in mid-2000 to produce a report on how Internet-based communication could improve scientific collaboration, I focused (in part) on weblogs and RSS as engines of distributed awareness and precise feedback.

Back in September, Sébastien Paquet wrote me a thoughtful email, which I cited with permission, on the subject of blogging and research culture. His assessment bears repeating:

Here are reasons why Sébastien thinks blogging and research culture should naturally go together:

  1. Scholars value knowledge. They have a lot of it to manage and track.
  2. A scholar's professional survival depends on name recognition. A K-log can help provide visibility and recognition.
  3. Scholars are used to writing; most of them can write well.
  4. Scholars are geographically disparate. They need to nurture relationships with people that they seldom meet in person.
  5. Scholars need to interlink in a person-to-person fashion (see Interlinktual)
  6. Scholars already rely heavily on interpersonal trust and direct communication to determine what new stuff is worth looking at. Such filtering is one of the central functions weblog communities excel at.
  7. For many scholars, the best collaborations come about when they find someone who shares their values and goals (this is argued e.g. in section 3 of Phil Agre's excellent Networking on the Network). The personal output that is reflected in one's weblog makes it much easier to check for such a match than work that is published through other channels.
  8. Scholars recognize the value of serendipity. Serendipity can come pretty quickly through weblogging; see Manufactured Serendipity.
  9. Every scholar must strive to be a knowledge hub in his niche, and an expert in related areas. A K-log is a good medium for this, as it is a way of letting knowledge flow through you while adding your personal spin.
  10. Scholars pride themselves on being independent thinkers. K-logs epitomize independent thought.

Here are reasons why Sébastien thinks blogging has failed to become a research nexus:

  1. It takes time.
  2. "The technology is not well-established and tested at this point."
  3. Many people don't like being among the first ones doing something.
  4. Not all scholars are used to the Web and hypertext.
  5. Shyness and fear of public mistakes. Many scholars won't write unless they have to. They may especially be reluctant to publicly expose ideas that they haven't tested.
  6. Fear that someone else will pick up their ideas and work them out before they do.
Rosalind Franklin

The sixth objection probably looms largest. The enterprise of science is at once exquisitely collaborative and fiercely competitive. One of the most poignant examples of the resulting dilemma is detailed in Horace Freeland Judson's The Eighth Day of Creation, the authoritative history of the elucidation of DNA's structure. Rosalind Franklin came very close to solving the riddle. But in the end, her X-ray crystallographic photos of DNA, conveyed indirectly to James Watson, triggered the crucial insight. She was denied the opportunity to collaborate directly, died of cancer a few years later, and is now a historical footnote.

Obviously the world of science was less kind to women then than it is now. But Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation suggests that Franklin probably would have been out of luck in any case. In his analysis, cooperation can arise and be sustained only when the Prisoner's Dilemma is iterated -- that is, when there is reason to expect many future interactions, and when there is no clearly-defined endgame. The hunt for the structure of DNA wasn't like that. A once-in-a-lifetime career-making Nobel-prize-winning goal was in view, and that distorted the payoff matrix.

In science (and in business) we might as well admit that, in such cases, competition will suppress cooperation. Rarely, we're pursuing a quest for a once-in-a-lifetime payoff. Usually, though, we're playing a game that looks more like an iterated prisoner's dilemma. A kind of meta-prisoner's-dilemma then arises. How can you tell the difference?

1 Tragic loss or good riddance? The impending demise of traditional scholarly journals: There are obvious dangers in discontinuous change away from a system that has served the scholarly community well [Quinn]. However, I am convinced that future systems of communication will be much better than the traditional journals. Although the transition may be painful, there is the promise of a substantial increase in the effectiveness of scholarly work. Publications delays will disappear, and reliability of the literature will increase with opportunities to add comments to papers and attach references to later works that cite them.

Former URL: http://weblog.infoworld.com/udell/2002/12/29.html#a557