How far one can push online collaboration in research?

27 Aug
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A week or so ago I’ve asked on the FriendFeed if there’s an interest in writing a cyclic publication on the status of Science 2.0. I thought that summarizing every year advancements in openness of science would be a good idea. During discussion it turned out that there’s a need to write a first major publication on Science 2.0 concepts because there isn’t one published in the life sciences field. The final conclusion of interested people was to meet face to face on the upcoming conference and discuss things in detail.

And this made me think.

I started to wonder why people who live, breathe and do research online still need to meet in person to plan and discuss some stuff. The very obvious explanation is that the conference was only two weeks ahead, so there was nothing more than that, but some patterns (brainstorm online, then meet in person, then finish online) repeat so often that I started to believe an online collaboration can only go to a certain point.

The excuse is not in the tools, especially given how fast the new ones appear.  As an examples may serve recently launched Adobe Acrobat site, which contains online editor and live collaboration suite (contains screen sharing, notes, chat, audio, video) or its analog for programmers: Assembla (svn, git, trac, wiki, milestones).

My feeling is that what makes a difference is not a quality of interaction while working on a certain project, but the possibility of discussing things not directly related to this project. Online collaboration is usually very focused. When editing a document online it’s usually hard to side-track it, so at the end it’s about something else than it was planned. Calls or videoconferences have usually a schedule. No place for non-related stuff. No place for a beer/coffee/glass of water and a chat about how life was good in old times. No place for discussions on random things and coming to the main project from a different angle and with completely new ideas.

I’ve been trying for quite a long to work online with other people on some projects from my home office (which is in the middle of nowhere). As you can guess, it works to a certain point and majority of them were improved upon meeting face to face. And this left me wondering how far can I push online collaborations. It isn’t usually an issue in IT field, but so far it doesn’t look very promising in research.

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Posted by on August 27, 2008 in Comments, Community, Research


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3 responses to “How far one can push online collaboration in research?

  1. Raik

    September 21, 2008 at 00:15

    Pawel, you didn’t even mention the biggest issue with online collaborations: the nonverbal communication is lost. We are animals after all and we need all those body-language clues to really efficiently communicate. This is even more important if we don’t know the other person all that well. Besides, in my experience, telephone conferences, for example, tend to be less rather than more focused than a face-to-face meeting. All the rigid agendas are just our desperate attempt to prevent total failure…
    Another issue is that, if we are talking to a person face-to-face, most of us are polite enough to fully focus on this conversation. Compare that to an instant message, quickly typed while you were also browsing your e-mails and doing at least two other things 😉

  2. Pawel Szczesny

    September 23, 2008 at 09:58

    Raik, I didn’t mention that because I think that science communication should be free of nonverbal messages. In other words, we should be discussing facts and theories as clearly as possible, without the need of relying on other means of communication (for many reasons it’s not always the case). From my own experience, one-to-one videoconferencing is quite close to the in-person scientific discussion (and yes, telephone is a poor way of communicating things).

    BTW, Scott Hanselman just posted about his one-year long experience in teleworking – It’s an interesing read.

  3. victor

    October 18, 2008 at 07:32

    hi, mr. Pawel

    I am a nonlinear physisist from Vladivostok
    My specialization is the analysis of nonlinear equations – chaos etc.
    i am interested in collaboration. Please contact me by e-mail (in this post) or icq 177098115

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