Google Docs as a collaborating tool

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been collaborating on a quite extensive chapter with colleagues across the country. In general, we’ve been using Google Docs and I have to say, the power of it as a collaboration tool is really quite amazing. Specifically, the simplicity and elegance combined with an ability to have multiple edits in real time represents a huge advantage of Office suites (generically). I’m impressed!

Encouraging collaboration…

At our Institute, a major “price of admission” for new faculty is a willingness to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries–the notion being that the loci for many major advances lie at the boundaries of disperate fields. This in itself is challenging because different disciplines operate with different technical languages, commonly called “jargon”. Finding a lingua franca between different disciplines takes time and energy and the pay off, while potentially large, is always fraught with risk (true scientific research is always risky).

Hence, here at Krasnow, the challenge is to encourage such collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, but the even deeper challenge is to encourage collaborations in general. Why?

A major reason is that our current training in science, especially at the doctoral level, emphasizes a solitary rather than team approach. The PhD thesis is, after all, a singularly individual intellectual product–the doctoral advisor’s name doesn’t go on the title page as an author for a reason. While the acquisition of data used in a dissertation may in some cases involve a team approach (think big data physics), at the data analysis level, for the thesis, the work is generally that of the graduate student.

Another reason for the challenge in getting scientists to collaborate is the inherent difficulties, under current systems of sharing data. Until data sharing curation and provenance norms are universal, the “safe” approach is to keep one’s own experimental data under wraps. While large scale data sharing is a desirable end-point, we still aren’t there yet.

Finally, my own sense is that a key ingredient of scientific success involves the ability to think intensely, without distraction, about a problem–and most individuals find it easiest to do this alone. Even if this isn’t the case, the conventional wisdom is that the “ah ha” moment follows such a period of introspective pondering.

So those are some reasons….how might one still encourage collaborations?

MSU’s President: institutes detract

Here’s an interesting piece by Princeton’s Stan Katz on Michigan State University’s President Simon has concluded regarding excellence at the large public university:

MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon is quoted as saying that therefore “the university [must look] at the big picture before it considers any new program and balances societal needs with the institution’s strengths. . . . ‘You try to find areas where you can be one of the best, if not the best.’” The operational conclusion has been “the elimination of independent research centers, which have self-sustaining budgets and can create barriers to interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Forgive me, but I don’t see this logic. Seems to me, that institutes do the opposite–they in fact eliminate barriers that would naturally exist between conventional units to trans-disciplinary collaboration. Read the piece and see what you think.


Collegiality in science

One of the most important things in science is to maintain collegiality in the face of a certain tendency among some to view their research as proprietary. This notion of one’s science as one’s “intellectual property” goes against my own grain–it’s at variance with the way my parents practiced neuroscience in their own laboratory at Caltech while I was growing up. So perhaps it’s just my own lack of familiarity with a modern fact-of-life. Perhaps. But it strikes me as very problematic to collaborate and especially exchange ideas with others when one’s body language is a metaphor for a non-disclosure agreement.

Reaching out across disciplines is especially important at an institute for advanced study like Krasnow is. Such exchanges are the crucial catalyst for scientific discovery. And the fuel for such exchanges is collegiality. Without it, one may be successful perhaps to a degree, but one loses the wonderful scientific give-and-take from colleagues who may shy away.

My two cents…