I briefly talked about GitHub, the version control system, in my last post on taking notes in Markdown. A few days ago John Norman wrote a post, calling GitHub “the most important social network“. He says this by virtue of discussion features built into the system, discussions can occur around code and changes can be incorporated rather easily. But the more intriguing part of his discussion, I think, lies at the potential of changing the nature of knowledge production, not only for code:

Let me tell you about knowledge production: much of it is private. I have a PhD in English and wrote a dissertation on the interaction between literary and medical knowledge in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My research notes and revisions were essentially private. My drafts were my property. In certain highly ceremonial performances, I might share my “work in progress” with an individual (a faculty advisor or an eminent scholar or a friend who could provide feedback), or with a study group interested in the project, or from the lectern at a conference. But for the most part, sharing to the entire world happened at the moment of final “production,” when the artifact was safely ensconced in the library or computer, and indexed by domain experts. This pattern is much the same in the social sciences and the sciences (the sciences are circulating more papers in pre-publication form, but the door is closed to full access to the laboratory).

This is actually a very intriguing prospect for me. Is there the potential to share and think through research notes in the actual process of writing them up? Does the same kind of system hold promise for writing articles and research reports? And are scholars willing to show that much of their Goffmanian “back stage” to public audiences?

As a token of my commitment to this experiment, here are my own notes for the prelim exam I’m studying for. http://github.com/raynach/comparative-historical. I have a number of apprehensions about doing this but I am very curious about the degree to which we can bring the collaboration of open-source code projects to other domains of knowledge production.

What other projects could social scientists use version control systems for?

  • Oh, I forgot to mention that Matt Salganik’s allourideas.org project uses GitHub for their API codebase, their web site, and their documentation.


  • Adam Slez

    I think that there are two diametrically opposed tendencies in play here. On the one hand, people are reluctant to share work in progress out of fear of looking dumb. This is a point that has been made really nicely by Howard Becker in Writing for Social Scientists. On the other hand, people are reluctant to share when they have something that they think is really smart and don’t want to get scooped. Taken together, these two things mean that a lot of work doesn’t see the light of day until it is almost out the door.

    • So the fear of getting scooped may be an insurmountable one. Some fields are probably more prone to “scoop-age” than others (e.g. if you’re in a lab setting where everyone in your subfield is on board with the same research agenda/program this is a larger worry than work with a more interpretative edge).

      The fear of looking dumb, though, may be a feature of the academic culture that could change with a shift in technical process. Many scholars are blogging now and the understanding (I would hope) are that these are “thoughts-in-progress” and less fully-formed ideas. The same sort of tack should be taken to stuff on version control systems. That said, the change of thinking that way may take a little more time. I’m rather ill-versed in sociology of knowledge/STS so I’d love for something to chime in who knows more about the evolution of scientific practices.

  • Dan Wang

    Economic historian, Joel Mokyr, has plenty to say about this as matter of explaining technological innovation. Namely, he attributes the birth of the industrial revolution in England to its culture of open knowledge sharing among scientists and practitioners, something that was lacking in the rest of continental Europe, which experienced the industrial revolution much later (it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the German patent system is also one of the oldest in the world, which Mokyr argues, delayed its leap into the industrial age). The lesson I take away from this is that the open sharing of in-progress research might generate greater value for collective knowledge, but knowing what we know about academia, it could be at the expense of individual careers, especially early ones.