Sunday, August 31, 2014

Let's open the scientific kitchen!

I am an academic economist and I am starting a blog. What I would like to do is to take the prospective readers (if any) throughout the journey of a young academic economist trying to advance economic science along with his own career.

For me, this blog would serve as a sort of lab notebook, where I register my ideas, thoughts, trials and errors and eventual results. This would be very helpful for me to keep track of my thought process, how I came to my results. It will also serve to polish my understanding and explaining of what I'm doing along the way, something that I think will prove critical when writing the final paper. I also would like this blog to be a sort of disciplinary device incentivizing me not to procrastinate too much on a project, by making explicit how much time has elapsed since I said I would do something. On the downside, one could say that blogging is the ultimate procrastination device. I hope not, and I want to see whether it works. Finally, I will indulge occasionally in one of my sinful pleasures: methology and history of science, especially of economics.

One of my hopes is that this blog gives a picture of the inner workings of my work, and thus contributes to give the audience a better understanding of how scientists in general, and economists in particular, work. Terence Tao's blog about his mathematical research is a beautiful example of what one can achieve in this respect. My hope is that in this way, we can overcome the occasional distrust that citizens have towards scientific work by opening up the machinery of what we are doing. This is a similar undertaking as the open kitchen movement in restaurants. Clients like it because it signals that the chef has nothing to hide, he does everything in the open, he has nothing to be ashamed of. Blogging opens the box of one's own methods and choices and hopefully participates to convince nonscientists that we have nothing to hide, and that everything is in the open for them to see. Maybe in the future, with more scientific blogging, we can decrease the likelihood of controversies such as the Climatic Research Unit email controversy or the one about the reproducibility of psychological research.

In order to start this blog, I have to overcome my own "academic paranoia", the fear that my unfinished ideas get stolen. Time and again, I've had this feeling that I am not particularly proud of, the reluctance to expose budding ideas publicly, for the fear that someone might get inspired by them and write a paper in the meantime. There is also the related fear of triggering an attrition war. If someone hears about me working on some topic, he might hurry to finish a related work. Think of Andrew Wiles locking himself up in his attic to crack Fermat's last theorem, after accumulating a bundle of papers to send each year for publication, in order to distract possible competitors and convince them that he was not working on proving Fermat's last theorem but still following his old research path, as Simon Singh reports. Related is the fear of a precedence war to decide who has come with an idea first. Michel Moreaux told me that Econometrica received 2 papers proving general equilibrium theory within 6 months in 1960 1952. There is actually a recent book on this topic. A few weeks ago a colleague told me that he received an email of a researcher that has conducted a very similar research, and that he did not know how to react.
My feeling is that being more open about which research we are pursuing since the start might help to make it clearer who contributed to what on a given topic. One very nice way to establish priority is to have blog entries showing the way your research unfolded. Tim Gowers made some excellent points on this topic when he launched the collaborative Polymath project. My experience is that sharing ideas early on generally makes me clarify them and has a major effect on the direction I eventually take. It might also help to identify potential collaborations very early along the way, etc.

Let's tame the fear then and let me take you for a journey in my scientific kitchen.