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.