Science & Industry

Coding social scientist looking at technology

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Does research need dictators?

I’ve taken part in a class of Open Collaboration and Peer production, exploring what open source means in theoretical sense and engaging in practical exploration and engagement of open source projects. As part of the course, we did try to develop a common report of our experiences, including a survey and analysis of our experiences. In the spirit of open collaboration, we developed the survey together and are now engaged the writing of the report.

My experience with this is that we have successfully replicated many experiences reported by Tomlinson et al. (2012) thus far. First, I experienced some issues of authority during the survey design: I was hesitated to make changes on others questions and the medium chosen (Google Forms) did not meet the requirements of true real-time collaboration in the end.

Now reflecting back, we most likely should have nominated certain people in charge of the process and having the final vote, i.e. dictators. The course reading engaged us with Freeman’s (circa 1970) notion on tyranny of structurelessness. Her main argument is that having no structure eventually creates some sort of structure, even while it might not be documented. And she continues by suggesting that the fact that there is no documentation makes it harder to challenge the structure.

Reflecting back to our research progress thus far, I think this is what hit us. I’ve been rather positive on collaboration before, but this course has actually made me a bit more hesitant in this area. On the other hand, at the same time there are cases of successful researchy projects done in collaboration, most prominent being Wikipedia. I need to point out that Wikipedia actually has rather many processes in place to support decision-making and deliberation of the decisions. More importantly Wikipedia has one major benefit on their side, I would say that time is not (that) limited of a resource in the discussions and deliberations. We on the other hand were hit by the classic deadline problem, so the survey was send out so we could collect data and now the report also has a deadline in two weeks if I’ve understood correctly.

If we accept this idea of research projects being more time constrained then we need to think how to make decision-making leaner. I think the best solution for this would be a clear dictatorship role, or ‘first author role’ – a person who has a clear final call on the topics.

Naturally the clear counter-argument here is that we just were too large of a group for this. Over 20 people collaborating tend to require coordination (however, Maillart et al. (unpublished) argues that there is a superlinear productivity: the more you increase people, the more you get output in open source projects). So, maybe research teams should just be smaller when engaging in collaboration, or coordinated in different way for larger groups.

Maillart et al. (unpublished) Superlinear Productivity in Open Source Software. Manuscript in process.

Filed under research management