Collaborating with Aliens

UFO behind Delphi
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UFO behind Delphi

The Treasury of the Athenians at Delphi. Nothing to see here.

I’ve been kick­ing around an idea for a paper for a couple of years. Every so often Stephen Hawking will announce that con­tact with an extra-terrestrial civil­isa­tion would be a Very Bad Thing. Therefore silence, or as close to it as pos­sible is a good idea. It’s not just Stephen Hawking, many other people agree. Hawking makes the point that con­tact from Europe to other regions hasn’t gone well for the nat­ives since 1492. I think this is a bet­ter argu­ment than “Aliens are scary”, but I think he’s using the wrong ana­logy. There is room for a paper that takes another view. There’s a couple of reas­ons I haven’t pushed on with it.

The main reason is that I’ve not been clear about where the paper could be pub­lished. Ok, Hawking hasn’t pub­lished his belief as a paper either, but he’s a fam­ous phys­i­cist. Famous phys­i­cists are pre­sumed not only to be experts on Physics, but all sci­ences, pseudos­ciences, etc. I can’t claim this expert­ise. If I’m going to say any­thing mean­ing­ful I should at least have it scru­tin­ised. This is the second prob­lem. It would be weird if my pos­i­tion were unequi­voc­ally cor­rect, par­tic­u­larly as we have no data at all on extra-terrestrial con­tact — unless you con­sider the Mars nano-bacteria that were announced and then dis­missed as a trial run. I could rely on review­ers to pick up obvi­ous errors or blind spots, but there’s surely a bet­ter way to fix prob­lems before sub­mit­ting to a journal with some collaboration.

I am part of a group of people who were apply­ing to have a blog hos­ted some­where. I think that’s very likely to not hap­pen. I’ve been quiet here, partly because of a broken arm and partly with a pile up of work that I need to sort through because it’s been delayed by my arm. It’s a shame because the site has a big audi­ence, but maybe not too big a shame as this site has a qual­ity audi­ence. What I’m inter­ested in now is if a col­lab­or­at­ive or even massively col­lab­or­at­ive paper could be writ­ten and how could it work.

Before even dis­cuss­ing tools there’s an issue over dir­ec­tion. As I said at the start, I think Stephen Hawking is wrong. You might think he’s right. He may even be right even if the method he got there was wrong. One of the inspir­a­tions for this approach is Timothy Gowers’ col­lab­or­at­ive approach to solv­ing math­em­at­ical prob­lems. He pulled together a group of people to tackle a prob­lem for a couple of years that he alone could not solve. The prob­lem was solved in seven weeks by a method that came as a sur­prise to him. I can see how that can demon­strably work. In the case of this paper, the sample is zero, and the res­ult is (expec­ted to be) a counter-opinion. Without a real­ity check is it pos­sible to write such a paper with open collaboration?

Alan Cann has used another method. He put up a paper for open peer review. I think it was a clever idea and I could do the same. My worry here is that some of the ana­lo­gies will be out­side my period and I think there could be very good and insight­ful com­ments from people who say, “No, you’ve got this wrong. You should be look­ing at…” In my opin­ion this makes the paper bet­ter and it’s worth author credit. If you give the per­son credit then to an extent you tor­pedo the claim that the paper is pre-reviewed because to some extent it’s self-reviewed.

I’m try­ing to think of a work­able solu­tion, and you’re wel­come to tell me I’m wrong about this too.

I think I should put up the first draft of the paper, prob­ably on Google Docs. I prefer DokuWiki, but leav­ing it open for com­ments and edit­ing could leave it wrecked. For the people who leave sub­stan­tial com­ments which can be pos­it­ive or neg­at­ive, but also indic­ate a dir­ec­tion to go for­ward with the paper, I offer co-authorship. I close the paper from pub­lic view and we write and re-write until it’s ready to go to a journal that’s either OA or happy to have an arXiv pre-print up. The gamble here is that enough people will see the call to review the first draft that it gen­er­ates a sens­ible amount of feed­back to improve it.

Ideally, I’d like to have a sys­tem that can re-used so that I can use it for gen­eral his­tory or archae­ology papers as well as odd ones like this. The reason for choos­ing this topic as the test sub­ject is that it’s doesn’t mat­ter that much to me if it gets massively delayed and it will very neatly high­light some areas where I am emphat­ic­ally not an expert and that col­lab­or­a­tion could be useful.

4 thoughts on “Collaborating with Aliens

  1. Alun

    A pat­ent is applied to a novel device or a pro­cess. This is neither. Sending a pre-print to arXiv and then pub­lish­ing in JBIS would be free I think.

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