Low Dimensional Topology

March 18, 2009

Massive, online collaboration – A case study.

Filed under: Misc. — Jesse Johnson @ 9:59 am

For the last six weeks or so, Tim Gowers and Terry Tao have been using their blogs (here and here) to carry out a very interesting experiment in large scale collaboration.  Gowers chose an open problem and created a system for organizing comments that allowed anyone to contribute to the discussion.  Now they seem to have solved the problem and Gowers has posted a blog entry with his thoughts on how the project went and what he learned from the experience.  Following the whole project requires a lot of combinatorics background, and would probably require a good amount of time even for an expert (there are over 1000, mostly long, comments in the discussion.)  But I think anyone who’s interested in using the web to enhance math research should take a look at his discussion of the experiment.

This collaboration turned out to not be as massive as originally hoped, with only a handful of active participants.  I think I’m a little too old fashioned to believe that truly massive collaborations could work (though I’d be happy to be proved wrong) but I think there are other models that could.  Gowers suggests the idea of having a number of small groups of collaborators, working on difference but related problems, sharing their discussions and feeding off each other.  Or, perhaps it would be useful to have a general discussion in order to allow the participants to find collaborators who are interested in the same techniques or problems.  What we need to do is try different experiments until we find models that work.

I don’t know if this blog has a big enough reader base to try such an experiment, but perhaps it’s a good time to start brainstorming.  (The “Name the mathematical object contest” was pretty successful, but I don’t think that counts as collaboration…)  Do any of you readers in the topology community have thoughts about  collaborative projects/experiments that might be worth trying?  What are the constraints and conditions that would be necessary to make such a project successful?  What sorts of outcomes would we look for?



  1. I’m extremely interested in such a collaborative project. I think Tim Gowers’s criteria for a good problem are sensible- but I would be interested in a problem which can be approached in various ways so that more people can contribute. Maybe something with a graph-theory side, like combinatorics of spaces of Jacobi diagrams, problems regarding triangulation in hyperbolic geometry, problems regarding curve complexes or related complexes associated to a surface or to a 3-manifold…
    One issue I have is that we need some idea of how to approach the problem, but nobody should be emotionally invested in it to the point they feel it is being “stolen” from them. And a problem with consequences exciting enough to make people interested…

    Comment by Daniel Moskovich — March 21, 2009 @ 9:59 pm | Reply

  2. There are lots of interesting problems about curve complexes and related complexes (some of which are on the open problems page!) But it might be hard to find a problem that is interesting enough that many people will want to work on it, but that no one is emotionally invested in.

    Meanwhile, Gowers has recently posted a new entry here that compares online collaboration to the creation of open source software and suggests a tree-based model that could give the process a shallower learning curve. It’s worth reading.

    Comment by Jesse Johnson — March 25, 2009 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

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