Scientific collaboration

Michael Nielsen dabbles in the economics of scientific collaboration. He starts with the basis: scientists have limited time or skills and so can benefit from trade based on comparative advantage. The market price should mediate this but in scientific collaboration there are no prices as might appear in physical goods markets.

An important difference between this model and Ricardo’s lies in the way we define the benefit to the parties involved. In the case of Ricardo’s model, the benefit is entirely intrinsic: Alice and Bob both want cars and potatoes. In the scientific case, there’s no intrinsic desire the parties have for “expert attention”. Rather, the benefit lies in the reputational credit derived from publications. This difference complicates the analysis of when it is worth it to collaborate. Instead of a simple trading rate, one must consider the way in which reputational credit is split. It is the ratio of this split to the opportunity cost that determines when it makes sense to collaborate. If Alice got 95 percent of the credit, and Bob only 5 percent of the credit, obviously it would not be in Bob’s interest to collaborate. In a future post, I’ll address this more fully, as well as many other aspects of this model.

For now, let me simply point out the relative lack of mechanisms science has for aggregating information about comparative advantage. Mostly, we do it by word of mouth and personal connection, the same way our ancestors traded goods, and so we don’t get the advantages that come from modern markets.

There are good reasons it’s difficult to set up efficient collaboration markets in expert attention. Creative problems are often highly specialized one-off problems, quite unlike the commodites traded in most markets. Until very recently, markets in such specialized goods were relatively uncommon and rather limited even in the realm of physical goods. This has recently changed, with online markets such as eBay showing that it is possible to set up markets which are highly specialized, provided suitable search and reputational tools are in place.

I think this is an important point and in an upcoming paper I make a similar one. However, we need to understand that similar issues plague all markets where the quality of goods is hard to observe. In this situation, other mechanisms complement prices in facilitating trade.

For scientific collaboration, the same is true. Indeed, science is an extraordinarily established way of aggregating information on reputation and contribution and this gets reflected in salaries and other prestige goods. But it is imperfect.

There is a currency in science but it comes in the form of reputation and status. It is a store of value for the scientist and they can trade on it. It is also a unit of account and much effort on the part of various academic committees goes into accounting. The issue is whether it is a medium of exchange.

A few years back, three co-authors and I published this piece in the Journal of Political Economy about scientific collaboration and attribution in economics. We looked at the issue of what happens if scientists can choose how to signal to others who has done what in a collaborative effort (through author order on papers). We noted that there was a potential for the scientific market to collapse towards simple norms that masked individual contribution in collaboration. That would have the effect of reducing incentives for effort in those teams but would also increase incentives for forming those teams in the first place.

One thought on “Scientific collaboration”

  1. Joshua: “Indeed, science is an extraordinarily established way of aggregating information on reputation and contribution and this gets reflected in salaries and other prestige goods.”

    While the system works well over long time scales, it’s very, very slow. The effect is to greatly slow down the rate at which information about comparative advantage is aggregated. It’s a bit like getting stock information, only 18 months after the fact.


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