Saturday, May 09, 2009

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.

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At 12:52 PM, Blogger Rich Apodaca said...

Jean-Claude, you raise some good points.

As I was reading I kept thinking about the similarities between the kind of collaboration you're describing and the way open source software is developed. So my comments come from what I've seen works for open source software.

From my perspective, one thing that's missing from Open Notebook Science is a place where those with an interest in the subject can meet, hang out, and find collaborators.

Case in point - the second paragraph of your post links "Open Notebook Science" to a Wikipedia article. There's nothing wrong with that, but it throws away a golden opportunity to draw people into what you're creating.

The ONSchallenge and UsefulChem are great, but they are limited in their utility as tools for organizing like-minded scientists.

Imagine a top-level site (say... dedicated to promoting open notebook science by matching those with a need in ONS with those who can fill it. "The" place to go for up-to-date information on Open Notebook Science. A site that serves as a hub for coordinating interdisciplinary ONS-related activities around the world. It might have a traditional forum - or it might have a problem and answer-style feel to it like or Maybe all of the above. Maybe something else altogether. The point is that Open Notebook Science solves some important problems - and the site should connect those with expertise in the area to those looking for it.

Crowds beget more crowds. I get no sense of an "ONS crowd" right now when I look at what the Web has to offer. The top two results returned by Google for "Open Notebook Science" are the Wikipedia article and a 2006 blog post.

Instead, I see many interesting, but separate groups each doing their own thing, but no deliberate attempt to coordinate their efforts and pool resources. And no forum for those groups to share their success stories with a wider audience.

If Open Notebook Science were a restaurant on University Avenue, all of the tables inside would be empty. I might wonder why that is and look for another place to eat. Which is a shame because all of the regulars actually meet in the back room and the food is excellent.

Just an idea.

At 1:12 PM, Blogger Jean-Claude Bradley said...

Thanks for the comment. I think the discussion platform you are describing is pretty much what FriendFeed has been for quite a while now. Egon did set up a room for the ONSsolubility project and there is some activity but most of the discussions take place via personal subscriptions. There is a stable pattern of activity there now and I think it would be difficult to get the discussion to move elsewhere. In fact several of the instances of collaboration I mentioned in my post were initiated or communicated primarily via FF.

At 1:57 PM, Blogger Hiro Sheridan said...

I read this comment in Michael Nielson's post:

Your article probably goes against the grain of most active research academicians who need publishing and personal fame. HOWEVER, there are thousands of retired seniors who are no longer practicing physicists and seek no glory except to make some contributions. By simple osmosis, scientist gain ingrained knowledge over a lifetime and recognize connections from a long time ago to tie together seemingly disconnected facts or findings.

I am former Professor of Physics and retired Optical Physics scientist with IBM Corporation who advanced the rise of optical storage from 1982 through 1996. I am 69 years old and certainly not seeking a Nobel prize. I just want to stay in the game...."

I think Rich has a good point - where do people go if they just want to contribute? I think FreindFeed is part of the back room that Rich is talking about. Great stuff but a little hidden. I wonder how many people are out there like the gentlemen above - with expertise AND time to spare - who are looking to be a part of something.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Cameron Neylon said...

Rich's point is a good one and one that keeps coming around. The trouble is that we really don't have the resources to make it happen in a useful way. I agree that Friendfeed is as close as we've got but its not for everyone and that is a problem...but I've yet to see anything else that would be worth jumping ship for.

I think the FF and related community could probably now build a damn good site/service/ecosystem to support these kind of things but we'd need a couple of million to pay people for the time required to set it up properly I think. I would be very happy to be proved wrong on that though...

At 6:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


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