Open scientific collaboration

7 habits of the open scientist: habit #4

This is the fourth post in my series on habits of the open scientist. Here I discuss the fourth habit, open collaboration. The previous post was on Pre-publication dissemination of research.

As mentioned in the introduction to this series, the first three habits are truly essential for any conscientious scientist. With the fourth habit, we’re moving into things that are valuable but less essential – advanced open science, if you will.

What do I mean by open collaboration? The use of online tools and social media to connect with new collaborators and provide your own expertise where it is needed most. For an excellent introduction to the subject, go read Michael Nielsen’s book, Reinventing Discovery. Here I’ll just focus on a few examples from my own experience:

Scientific Q&A sites

Often scientific research involves elements of work that have been done before or are already well understood – by someone, somewhere. Sometimes this work is published and readily available, but other times it is unpublished or perhaps published in a place you wouldn’t know to look. Finding the person with the specialized knowlege you need might take much longer than “reinventing the wheel”, i.e. redoing the work yourself. Enter StackExchange, an engine for connecting questions with correct answers and making them readily available.

I’m an avid participant in (and former moderator of) the Stack Exchange for Computational Science. I also use Mathoverflow and Stack Overflow. Some personal examples of the kind of connections I’m talking about are here and here. These are conversations that would never have taken place “in real life” simply because the people involved have never met each other.

I also find the TeX stack exchange to be a gold mine, and typically far more useful than browsing through package documentation on CTAN.

Social networks like Google+

I use Google+ (and previously Reader, which was a far superior tool) for sharing new papers that I think may be of interest to my collaborators. I’ve also used it to debate journals’ editorial policies (with the editors) and for preliminary planning of conferences and proposals – to find out who may be interested in participating. It’s certainly not suited to discussing scientific or mathematical concepts in any detail, and it is annoyingly difficult to sort through new things that are posted. I think that Facebook is less useful for this purpose because Facebook is used primarily for personal content whereas a large community of G+ users (of which I am part) consider it to be a platform for sharing professional content. But I’m not a good judge – I don’t even have a Facebook account.


I wanted to say “sites like Github”, but I don’t think there are any others. Online code hosting sites have long facilitated collaboration between existing teams, but Github takes this to a new level by explicitly promoting collaboration between people who have never met. Surprisingly, this paradigm shift didn’t require any new technology. Rather, it stems from a combination of their “code first, ask permission later” pull-request mindset and subtle differences in the user interface – like a “fork me” button on every page, just begging you to modify some stranger’s code.

Now this philosophy – and use 0f Github – has moved beyond just sharing what we usually think of as computer code. For instance, Carl Boettiger puts the full source of his Jekyll-based website on Github, which enabled me (simply by forking it) to easily set up this site.

A word of caution

As useful as all the above are, I’ve found that they can also be a way of wasting time. You may find this to be the case if you’re merely trading opinions with strangers or consuming tidbits of information that aren’t really relevant to your research – for instance, I find that my time spent on the Academia Stack Exchange is of dubious value. I stepped down from moderating the SciComp Stack Exchange because I felt it was too time-consuming. But if used in a focused way, open collaboration tools can accelerate, enrich, and expand your research.

What other tools or sites ought to be mentioned here? Let me know in the comments.