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Creative collaboration: ideals and reality

by Michael Nielsen on March 11, 2008

I’ve been reading Keith Sawyer’s book “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration”, and thinking about what makes some collaborations work, and others fail.

In this post I describe two principles governing group collaboration. Both principles are obvious and self-evident. Unfortunately, and this is the point of the post, they’re often systematically disobeyed in scientific collaborations, and this may prevent such collaborations from achieving what Sawyer calls “group flow”, a state in which groups collaborate effectively, producing creative works beyond any of the individual members of the group.

Principle: Collaboration should recognize individual effort appropriately

In a jazz performance, it is for the most part transparent who is contributing what to the performance. If someone is slacking off, or trying to hog the limelight, this becomes obvious to the audience.

Science is much less transparent. There are no generally agreed upon norms governing how people are given credit in a paper, and as a result individuals in a group may not feel secure that their role will be properly acknolwedged. To be sure, in some fields there are rules of thumb – for example, in many experimental papers, the principal investigator who runs the lab in which the experiments were performed is often listed as the last author on the paper. But this is a long way short of a full and fair accounting of who contributed what.

This lack of transparency causes all sorts of problems. A common example is the “author” who was in the room when some critical breakthrough happened, but who actually contributed little, and lacks the grace to refuse authorship. Another common example is the author who contributes just enough to deserve authorship, and then goes on their merry way, leaving the bulk of the work to be done by others. Many multi-author papers are primarily the work of a single individual, yet that individual may not be distinguished at all in a long list of 5-10 (or even more) authors.

Some scientific journals, such as Nature, are beginning to address this problem, experimenting with systems whereby each author on a paper is asked to detail what they contributed to the paper. It will be interesting to see whether this creates more incentive for people to contribute in a full and fair fashion to papers on which they are authors.

Principle: collaboration should involve people with complementary skills

This is so obvious that it would seem to fall into the “well, duh!” category. In fact, institutions often systematically violate this principle on such a large scale that it becomes an accepted and almost invisible part of the institutional culture.

Exhibit A is Australian science. I’m picking on Australian science here because I know it well – similar remarks hold true in many other countries. A peculiar feature of the funding system for nearly all Australian Universities is that departments are financially rewarded for keeping their own students within a department. As a result, it’s not uncommon to go into a large research group, and discover (say) 5 PhD students, virtual academic clones of one another, having graduated from the same academic department, often within a year or two of each other, and often with essentially the same list of undergraduate courses. Not a good recipe for reaping the benefits of complementary expertise! The contrast with top American research departments is striking, with students even within a given research group often having quite heterogeneous backgrounds.

Exhibit B is the disciplinary structure of science itself. Most disciplines and subdisciplines have a canon of material, which experts are expected to understand. Unfortunately, in most fields learning the canon requires an enormous amount of time, which leaves little room for learning more individualized skills. It’s interesting to recall that the physicist Richard Feynman famously claimed not to understand either group theory or the standard integration techniques from complex analysis, two skills that are certainly canonical for particle physicists. Perhaps he spent his time learning a more individualized set of skills that made him better able to contribute in a unique way to the collaborative enterprise of science.

From → Science

  1. Michael, you are exactly right with those two points. Science becomes more collaborative every year, and with very little conscious reflection within research labs about how to handle this historic shift. Take a look at my blog posting summarizing a recent article published in SCIENCE magazine:

  2. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Keith: Thanks for the pointer! Funnily enough, a lot of the data reported in the article you point out is stuff I’ve recently being trying to track down. I found some older studies of collaboration trends, but none so recent as you point out, and none which tries to assess the impact of collaboration on quality.

  3. There is often chatter about new authorship rules. Of course, disciplines differ. Here is one stab at it from me.

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