Leaders and Pushers in Open Science projects
Fred Zimny just posted an interesting piece on open scientific collaborations: Your (r)evolution will be digitized: online tools for radical collaboration — DMM
The article tries to give a balanced view of radical sharing and our Open Notebook Science projects (ONSchallenge and UsefulChem) get a mention.
Some good discussions about what it takes to have an open collaboration succeed have emerged from it. Deepak Singh has posted about the requirement for a benevolent dictator. There is also a healthy discussion on FriendFeed where Andrew Lang argues for an organizer.
I think that open projects function very much like any other projects, with the advantage of it being easier for people to join in and make use of the results.
People often mention leadership as the key ingredient to making projects work. Leadership is associated with that nebulous concept of vision, a type of flexible long range planning that probably does work best when coming from a single individual.
Leaders with a clear vision are known for giving inspiring speeches and presentations. But vision by itself does not get things done. For that you need pushers - people who relentlessly push themselves and others to execute.
In the book "The Dip", Seth Godin explores the value of strategic perseverance and quitting. In anything worth doing there is a period after initial enthusiasm and before one can see the light at the end of the tunnel where most people quit - this is the dip. Godin argues that the key to being successful is to being able to tell the difference between a true dip and a pit leading nowhere. Winners strategically quit the dead ends and persevere through the dips. That is exactly what pushers do.
People often think that successful leaders attract followers - people who are subservient. In my experience successful projects result from a collaboration of colleagues who share common values. Within the group there may be individuals with less experience who can best contribute by trusting those with more experience and making a firm commitment to learn quickly so that they can initiate contributions that count.
Of course leaders have to be pushers themselves. But since people have a limited ability to maintain simultaneous goals with equal urgency, it is helpful for collaborating colleagues to act as pushers in a complementary fashion.
To give a few concrete example of this, consider our Open Notebook Science projects.
Andrew Lang has been a close collaborator for a long time and has written code that enables us to visualize our solubility results (with Rajarshi Guha) and process NMR files automatically. The project would be missing key components without Andy pushing to make things happen. But Andy has also initiated other high impact actions that are unrelated to writing code: our ONS Wikipedia entry, recruiting David Bulger at ORU to do solubility measurements and adding our measurements to common chemicals in Wikipedia - which has ended being a popular portal to our data.
Bill Hooker, in addition to writing in depth about Open Science, has recently stepped up to help with emailing all of the chemistry departments in the US to get some more students to participate in the ONS Challenge. Shirley Wu volunteered to assist Andy in making ONS logos. Brent Friesen included the solubility challenge as part of his sophomore organic chemistry lab at Dominican University.
Cameron Neylon has done a tremendous amount - recently he pushed to get a group of us to publish a chapter in the upcoming O'Reilly Media book Beautiful Data. Organizing my trip to the UK last fall was another major accomplishment that he made happen. Cameron speaks extensively about Open Notebook Science and although there is a significant overlap in our objectives, he has a clear vision about what needs to happen that focuses on slightly different - and complementary - priorities.
There are many other people and examples that I could have used but I think those highlight the point I am trying to make about open collaborations. Pushers make things happen without being asked and that keeps projects alive.
My most pressing objectives often involve making sure key lab experiments get done and results processed into a usable format, including publications. Sometimes my collaborators need to push me about other issues and I am generally appreciative of that. It is when you have people that don't share your values pushing you that conflict arises.
As I mentioned previously, the point of open collaborations is the shared experience with others with similar values. At the end of the day it is their opinion that matters most.