Monday, October 31, 2011

Types of research collaborators

There is the flea, who jumps from question to question in a seemingly haphazard manner, looking for food. Or the butterfly. We admire its speed, its brilliance, and its ability to connect seemingly disconnected ideas. It's like exploring the world of possibilities by breadth-first-search.

There is the mole, slowly digging forward with obstination, going into one direction and never giving up. We admire its obstination and courage to go through even horrible calculations or case analyses. It's like exploring the world of possibilities by depth-first-search.

Then there is the rest of us. We do some kind of mixture. When we collaborate with a mole, we get frustrated by its doggedness at times, when it is clear to us that the way forward to blocked and that those heavy-handed attempts will most likely be fruitless. When we collaborate with a butterfly, we get frustrated at times, because it keeps giving up and switching directions before we've had time to see whether that previous idea had any promise.

The best collaborators are those who are in a narrow range around our own style of research: when we switch questions, they are willing to give up because they're getting tired of getting nowhere. When we keep going, they follow happily because they think there might still be something to that idea, and, although they personally would give up, are willing to give it one more try for our sake.


  1. I believe the flea and the mole have the same definition for the best collaborators ;-)

  2. ``The best collaborators are those who are in a narrow range around our own style of research''
    I was rather surprised reading this. Maybe I haven't had enough collaborations to actually make a meaningful comment but for me collaborations with people having different styles, while being rather tiresome at times, have been really fruitful. Maybe I was just thinking that they have different styles while you'd classify them as ``the rest of us'' ;-)

  3. I disagree.

    There are many different types of collaborations (non-exhaustive list ahead).

    1) Some (where you find yourself, as you say with someone who is "in a narrow range around our own style of research") help to "amplify" your own attributes.

    2) Others are the complete opposite. You seek co-authors that complement you, that is, who's strengths are different than your own : for instance X is good at doing the calculations, and proofs, but Y has the general ideas, and Z is good at recognizing a pattern and summarizing the work in a coherent theory. Everybody has his/her strong point(s) and Achilles' heel(s).

    3) And sometimes, you simply work with people are not at all in the same field, and then it's not just the technical difference/similarities that matter. (By the way, wasn't that the point of your Oct. 22nd blog post?)

    Each type of collaboration will yield different sort of scientific results. There are no rules, of course, but perhaps 1) is good to develop existing ideas in a specific field. Perhaps 3) is great to establish some groundbreaking theory that bridges a large gaps between two seemingly unrelated fields. And perhaps 2) is great if you just want to have fun and do what you're best at (whether it's the nitpicking, the writing, the simulating, the philosophic thinking, etc.).

    All types of collaboration are best suited for different types of research. I feel like the most important is to enjoy the people you're working with---but perhaps that's incredibly naïve of me.

    Hello, by the way :)

  4. Anonymous 9:22am: yes!
    Christian and Jeremy: To clarify, I'm just talking about the joint research that happens in brainstorming sessions during which we pool resources to try and solve an open problem; not about the many other kinds of joint research.

    Christian and Jeremy: it seems that there is a lot more than can be said on the subject. Christian, would you be willing to write a blog post on how you collaborate with people who have different styles? (Maybe you're more flexible than me). Jeremy, would you be willing to write a blog post on your experience of collaboration in practice with people who are not in (or not quite in) the same field?


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