I've often been disparaging of the community efforts of big
academic collaborations, because it seems like they rarely communicate with the
outside world well - this is particularly true of interim
(not-yet-publishable) results and software. Over the years I've
evolved a theory that big consortia are so busy communicating within
that they have no energy for communicating without. This robs the
larger scientific community of insight and scientific results in a way
that I feel like smaller collaborations do not - you could probably
come up with "communication per $$", or something, as a metric, and I
bet large consortia would show poorer numbers.
I particularly admire open source communities here, because the
communication is often so good (compared, at least, with consortia, or
really academics of any kind) and rather fine grained. Since many
open source communities are both distributed and asynchronous, they
really seem to excel at information sharing in useful ways.
(See Max Ogden's excellent doc about how to run an async team if you're interested in some of the lowdown here.)
I am hoping to use
my coordination position within the #CommonsPilot
to facilitate better communication, and we've even hired some people to do
that. So imagine my frustration to be in exactly that "silent"
situation with the #CommonsPilot! I can now partly confirm my initial
theory, and elaborate upon it, with the benefit of about 6 months of experience.
Without further ado, here are:
The top N reasons why I think big consortia are unusually silent.
- We're too busy talking to each other by e-mail!
By the time I finish reading and responding to e-mails (and, ahem,
sending new ones) from the #CommonsPilot each day, I'm out of time
- We're too busy talking to each other on teleconferences!
Most information is passed via in-person teleconferences, from
which very little information actually escapes. This is exacerbated
by people's interest in ONLY communicating this way, because it leads
to more focused and thoughtful engagement by busy academics. It's high
bandwidth, sure, but it's also isolating - only the people who have
the time and energy to show up for all the teleconferences are in the
One takeaway that I got from
this excellent blog post, aturon.log: listening and trust, part 1,
about the Rust community, is that "all major project decisions must
go through the RFC process" - which must involve written
communication that clearly recapitulates anything discussed on a
phone call. We were already instituting this in the Data Commons
before this blog post, but now I have extra reasons to do so :)
- Consortium wide decisions require multiple rounds of discussion
before consensus is reached and can be communicated externally.
I really don't want to post things that people disagree with, but it
takes a lot of time to figure out what that is (and isn't).
- Rules for communicating with the outside world aren't clear.
Funding bodies and senior PIs are often risk averse, and figuring out
what is and isn't a risk is tough. We've finally gotten some
blogging and Twitter guidelines approved and we'll post them when we
- Hierarchies interfere.
Typically the people most familiar with social media are junior in
collaborations, and (for better or for worse) are worried about irritating
those senior to them by speaking out of turn.
Here I have an edge, since I'm both a PI and a coordinator on this
project, and my proposal focused on outreach (and this proposal was
accepted by the NIH). So I have a mandate.
- Communicating externally takes time, energy, and willpower.
Usually, there's no one whose job it is to communicate with the community.
To which I say...
Dr. Rayna Harris
Wait, why should we be communicating anyway?
I started with the implicit assumption that consortia should be communicating
with the outside world. Why??
I think there are many reasons. It's not just about communicating science more effectively, although that's part of it; it's also about:
communicating about what big, expensive consortia are doing that's
worthwhile; think "accountability to taxpayers and stakeholders".
gaining buy-in for consortium decisions from the wider
community. This is particularly important for efforts like the
#CommonsPilot, where we are hoping to identify and implement good
standards and build a community of practice.
getting feedback (negative and positive) on consortium decisions. If
we're picking tech that is out of date or old or bad, we should
know - and we don't always!
Perhaps the best reason, though, is that external communication can
help people internal to the Consortium understand what's going on.
I've often found that there are relatively few people truly "in the
loop" in any given situation, and a commitment to external communication
of internal decisions can actually help communicate those same internal
Or, to put it another way, if you're not communicating in one venue,
you're probably not communicating well in any venue, and this is
probably harming your consortium and limiting the contributions of
people - especially junior people.
So, what's the status, anyway?
Conveniently, Rayna Harris just wrote a nice blog post about some of our coordination efforts and the current status of the Data Commons!
More soon, I hope :)
p.s. Thanks to VM Brasseur for her comments and suggestions on this post!
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