The current model of writing up collaborative research in science is that a single individual “takes the lead” and writes a complete draft of the manuscript, which is then sent on to coauthors for comments, corrections, etc. This means that even when the development of the ideas and the work of research and analysis has been conducted in a truly collaborative manner (which, I suspect is actually not all that common, at least for the research and analysis parts) that the writing is really more of a one writer – multiple critics system.
This is in part due to the legacy of technology. Up until a few years ago most people simply couldn’t easily work on the same document together. In sophisticated environments the official copy of the manuscript could have been stored on a central server and individuals could “check it out” to work on it for a while, upload it when they had finished, someone else could check it out, lather, rinse, repeat. This required enough coordination that I’m not sure it was much better than just emailing the manuscript from one person to another. There was of course better tech, but scientists didn’t typically know about it, let alone use it.
These technological limitations have now been largely overcome (though there are certainly still some kinks to work out). Wikis represent the first, easiest, step to move beyond these constraints. Most wikis still only allow one person to work on a document (in this case a page) at any given time (but see this recent announcement by weecology’s prefered wiki host, PBworks), but by having the document stored on the web and editable via the browser there is no dead time for the document. You are either working on it actively or you’ve saved it and it’s available to others to work on. This reduces the size of the steps that need to be made on a paper because it wasn’t “you’re turn” to make progress and you didn’t commit to making a real contribution by checking out the paper. Even better than wikis are online collaborative editors like Google Docs or Zoho. These allow multiple individuals to work on a single document at one time. This might seem extravagant, but if two people happen to have a spare 30 minutes at the same time of day, not getting in each others way can make a big difference. Better yet, it allows you to intentionally work simultaneously. At weecology we will actually schedule writing meetings, where two or three of us will sit down in the same room with separate laptops (or an equivalent remote setup) and go to work on a paper. It’s amazing how much easier it can be to sit down and write when your whole team is doing it at the same time and it facilitates active interaction on the paper – “Hey, what do you think we should do about this part of the section I’m working on right now?”
And now, there is a new exciting set of technologies that provide yet another opportunity to move beyond the old system of collaboration – Google Wave. You can think of Wave as combining email, instant messaging, and collaborative document editing. This combination is cool enough on it’s own, but the seamlessness of the collaborative editing goes beyond anything currently available, thus removing some of the hiccups and frustrations of the current options (NB: don’t expect wave to run this smoothly yet as they are still scaling up the system).
This post was motivated by the fact that I just received my long awaited invite to try out Google Wave, which is still in private Beta. I logged in last night and did a quick search for public waves with the word ecology in them. There weren’t any. So, I am happy to announce that I have five invites to give away to practicing ecologists (that’s scientists who study ecology, not environmentalists) who want to give Google Wave a try. Leave a comment with an email and (ideally) something (like a link to a website) that demonstrates that you are an ecologist in case the swarm of folks looking for invites finds JE.
UPDATE: Two things. First, I started a public wave – Any ecologists on wave yet? – which you can find with a quick search of either ‘ecologists with:public’ or ‘ecology with:public’. Second, I forgot to warn the folks who get invited that according to Google “Invitations will not be sent immediately. We have a lot of stamps to lick.”. So it might take a while for your invitations to show up. When they do, stop by and leave a comment so that others know about how long they can expect it to take.
UPDATE 2: I’ve been reloaded with invites, so there are plenty to go around. Just leave a comment if you want one.