Tuesday, May 05, 2009

After you, Claude

Co-operation What if scientists didn't compete? has been doing the rounds recently, so you may have heard about it already. Briefly, Sean Cutler performed a social experiment in which:
Instead of competing with my competitors, I invited them to contribute data to my paper so that no one got scooped. I figured out who might have data relating to my work (and who could get scooped) using public resources and then sent them an email. Now that I have done this, I am thinking: Why the hell isn’t everyone doing this? Why do we waste taxpayer money on ego battles between rival scientists? Usually in science you get first place or you get nothing, but that is a really inefficient model when you think about it, especially in terms of the consequences for people’s careers and training, which the public pays for.
The resulting article by Sean Cutler and 20 other researchers in the United States, Canada and Spain describes a technique for helping plants to grow with less water by activating the natural defenses that enable plants to survive during drought, and has now been published in Science.

So why do scientists who depend on public funding habitually compete rather than co-operate and keep their data secret? This was the dilemma we faced recently when we were writing our JISCRI bid for the SM@LL project. Open collaboration is a prisoner's dilemma where openness runs the risk of punishment.

Unless, of course, openness becomes the rule rather than the exception, and it becomes the people who don't share who face the risks of selfishness. A stated intent of the JISCRI call was to encourage "Engagement with the Community" (the degree to which the proposal demonstrates an openness and willingness to work with and share findings with the JISC community and to work in partnership with JISC in forward planning, dissemination and evaluation, and to continue to make available the findings beyond the project period).

So let's see.