Two New Books About Scientific Collaboration

Internet evangelists like to talk about how the Internet has enabled a new era of mass collaboration. And I agree with them. However, I disagree that collaboration is a new thing; collaboration is a basic human organizational form, and creativity and innovation have always resulted from collaboration. In my book Group Genius, I tell stories from the 19th and early 20th century of collaborations–many of them distributed, open systems–that resulted in inventions as different as the telegraph and the board game Monopoly.

In the Wall Street Journal this weekend, Alan Hirshfeld reviewed two new books about collaboration through the centuries, and how groups and organizations fostered scientific and scholarly advances. The first book, The Clockwork Universe, describes the history of “scholarly societies” throughout Europe, extending back to Rome’s Accademia dei Lincei in the 1600s. But most of the book is about London’s Royal Society, founded in 1660. Isaac Newton became the group’s president in the early 1700s. As always, the real history of science shows that the “solitary genius” image is a complete myth.

The second book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club, is about the 18th century collaboration between four Cambridge University students: the mathematician Charles Babbage, who designed the world’s first programmable computer; the astronomer John Herschel, who would go on to make contributions to the new technology of photography; William Whewell, who coined the term “scientist” in 1833; and the political economist Richard Jones, who worked to ameliorate poverty. They met for breakfast every Sunday. They corresponded constantly. They debated everything. They convinced the Royal Society to base membership solely on scientific merit (it had been an avocation of the moneyed class) in 1847. And even though they advocated for increased specialization, their creativity was enhanced by the diverse backgrounds of the group.

In today’s world, creativity is always collaborative. And it’s not just because we all connect to the Internet; it’s because human creativity has always been deeply collaborative, always emerging from social networks and groups.

7 thoughts on “Two New Books About Scientific Collaboration

  1. The word “always” is too strong in this post, and lacks a basis in the sciences of creativity. Collaboration can enhance the quaiity and quantity of creative ideas and products. And idea generation has many roots in social interaction. But individual creativity in any encompassing sense of the word has profound importance in how we learn, interact, solve problems.

    1. Of course, I agree with you that creativity results from individual mental processes as well as collaboration. (After all, I am a psychologist.) In fact, I might say that it “always” involves individual mental processes and collaboration both😉 . I have a more extended argument for my claim that collaboration is always involved in creativity, in my 2007 book Group Genius. We can always play a game: You try to name an important creative contribution that did not involve any collaboration, and I will try to demonstrate that there really was collaboration involved.

  2. The word “always’ does not belong in this post. Yes, collaboration and social interaction can enhance creative thinking and creative products. But individual creativity is a vital part of the learning and problem solving processes we engage-in more or less constantly. And some creators were inveterate loners, for example Albert Einstein in his productive early career.

  3. I agree with James, “always” is an overstatement. Collaborative efforts often get high jacked by a dominant individual and stifle group action. You could argue that these situations are not truly collaborative but this becomes circular. On the other hand, the use of collaborative software does not guarantee inspiration or insight either. In fact, most of the recent research indicates social software has very low adoption rates, beyond compliance. Also, the primary use of such software is document sharing and some simultaneous work on documents.

    The potential of collaboration for break though innovation is tremendous and when harnessed, social software can greatly augment our capacity to benefit from collective intelligence.

    1. Thank you for that post, I agree with your points about the potential pitfalls of collaboration. There is a lot of research showing various situations where groups underperform solitary individuals, due to various factors like “production blocking” and “hidden profiles.” And in my experience, you are exactly right about the limited success of so-called knowledge management systems. In my opinion, no one has yet figured out how to design a virtual collaboration tool that really satisfies all organizational needs.

  4. I think of collaborative efforts to generate ideas and associations as the hooking up of two neural networks — whereas one brain seeks associations broadly in the brain through its web of firing patterns, two brains “firing together” and interactively raises the possibilities of productive hits, geometrically in the ideal. I have good data from trial experiments on this in my classes over recent years.

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