I was pointed by my colleague Roy Williams to the bioinformatics site myexperiment.org. Here, practitioners in this field share workflows they develop to perform all kinds of biochemical tasks. Others extend these workflows, which are for the most part public, and thereby enable broader and richer collaborations. I can’t tell you how successful this approach is, nor of the science value of the workflows, but I did start to wonder why astronomers don’t seem to attempt collaborations like this.
We share tools and develop libraries that are accessible to all. Kelle Cruz started the splendid and successful astrobetter forum, now on facebook as well, which shares tips and tricks for astronomers working on Mac OS X platforms. But this is quite different than building on-line collaborations between professional astronomers. Why have astronomers not taken to this? I have been pondering this question, but I have no ready answer. As sciences go, astronomy is a small field that is highly competitive. Faculty jobs are in short supply, and career advancement is based largely on the strength of an astronomer’s publication record. Sharing too much information about analysis tools may be seen as giving an advantage to a competitor. Astronomers have tended to get little credit for sharing data and software, and I think the field’s reward system does need to change. But I think there is another characteristic of astronomy at work. Astronomy has for many years been the province of the lonely scientist on the mountaintop communing with the universe through the telescope. I am inclined to think that isolation is a more ingrained characteristic in astronomy than other fields and this perhaps is why astronomers have not yet taken to what might be called “social collaboration.” Astronomy is definitely emerging from these older social attitudes, as younger scientists embrace new approaches to science, driven by changes in technology and the vast quantities of data that astronomers can now process on-line. Maybe in the next few years we will see new approaches to collaboration lead to new discoveries from this treasure trove of data.