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• CommentRowNumber1.
• CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
• CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2009

(Copied over from the n-Cafe as the thread quickly got diverted)

One of the aims of the nLab is to provide a space for collaborative work to take place. This raises the question of authorship. It would probably be a good idea to get something in place on this before anyone attempts anything serious rather than after.

Here’s a hypothetical. Someone starts a page on some topic with the intention of doing a little original research on said topic. Various people also contribute, to a greater or lesser degree. At some point, it is felt that something significant has been done and there is something worth publishing there. Assuming that we are still working with the current publishing model, what would people feel would be an acceptable procedure at this juncture? The point about the assumption being that the current model only permits three levels of authorship on a paper:

1. Author

2. Mentioned in the acknowledgments

3. Not mentioned at all

On the other hand, the revision system of a wiki allows for a much more fine level of distinction. So we would need a translation from the wiki levels of authorship to those of a paper.

Now, I don’t expect this to get sorted out straightaway, and I expect that whatever consensus is reached at the beginning will be quickly seen to be a complete travesty once someone actually tries to implement it. So what I would actually like to see is something that allows for this.

What I have in mind is that the original author (who, let me remind you, intended there to be original work) to put up some sort of disclaimer/terms-of-use on the page along the lines of:

“This page (and its sub-pages) have been created for the express purpose of doing original work. It may happen that a snapshot of these pages will be submitted for publication. At that time, an author list will be decided upon. This author list will be decided by [Original author and Certain Others] subject to the guidelines laid down at [Guidance for Publication].”

The “Certain Others” should be a team of respected arbitrators (two names instantly spring to mind) whom everyone trusts to be fair and reasonable. The “Guidelines” obviously should contain a description of what the community regards as being a contribution worthy of authorship or of acknowledgment (for example, adding a full stop at the end of a sentence probably doesn’t warrant an acknowledgment, but sorting out some horrendous notation or checking references probably does).

The discussion I would like to see first is as to the overall model. I don’t think that this is the place to discuss the actual guidelines - if this model is acceptable then the obvious thing to do is create a page on the wiki and see what the eventual consencus is.

• CommentRowNumber2.
• CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
• CommentTimeJul 6th 2009
• (edited Jul 6th 2009)

I was about to start a new discussion on "ownership of the n-lab" when I remembered this discussion that I started way, way back when there weren't many readers of this forum. There are several important points made in the discussion Organisation of the n-lab. Here I'm more concerned with ownership/authorship as it relates to the ability to publish, rather than the legal side of matters (though that is also important).

In addition to what I said above, I'd like to make a couple of other points (sort of in reply to some of the things that Eric said). This is mainly about why I'm involved in the n-lab. One can take it as an expansion of what I meant by saying that "If the n-lab owns everything on the n-lab then count me out".

Maybe I should start by mollifying that a little. It isn't really that I will leave, slamming the door on my way out, proclaiming that I'll never again darken the door of the 'lab. Rather, it means that the n-lab won't be as useful to me as it might so other things will crowd out the time that I would have spent doing n-labby-type stuff and so my participation will generally tend downwards to nil.

So why am I involved? My main reason for being involved is that I want to collaborate. How does a collaboration start? I'm sure that there are lots of ways; here's one: I and someone else start telling each other about some mathematics. We start at a fairly elementary (read, expository) level, but eventually realise that gaps in what I know are filled by what they know and vice versa. Eventually, we realise that we have something new whereupon we focus on that and, hopefully, develop it. Then we write it up as a paper. Hopefully there are enough bits left over that we can start the process again, only short-cutting some of the early stages.

The biggest step in this is finding the other person to talk to. This is where something like the n-lab can help. The early bits of "telling the other person about my work" would be roughly the same whoever the other person is, so I could just put them on the n-lab. This would be fairly expository so fits with the "reference" part of the n-lab that Eric likes. It could equally go in a private lab but the problem with that is exposure. In the n-lab itself, I get maximum exposure to my "stall". In a private lab I have to do some work to persuade people to look.

Once my basic material is up, other people come along and read it. Maybe some of them get interested and start adding things to the page. Eventually, someone else adds something substantial (read, mathematical) and a collaboration begins. After this, things proceed much along the lines that they did before, except for one thing: the work is public and open to others joining in.

Now Eric proposes that at some point between the initial import of expository material and the final paper being written then the whole lot is carted off to a private space. I certainly wouldn't want to prevent this happening: some work is best done in private. However, I would also like to see the possibility for a completely open collaboration in which anyone can join in at any stage. But one would need clear guidelines on how to assign credit for the final paper. The Bourbaki/Polymath "all for one" idea is not practical for reasons I outlined in the other discussion, and neither do I see it as difficult to have a system in place provided it is clearly laid out at the outset.

To, briefly, comment on the polymath idea (since I bring it up). The problem with the way that that worked was that someone had a very definite starting point. The model I've outlined above doesn't need a definite problem at the outset and so is more flexible.

To conclude, all this needs is a system in place at the outset that allows for pages to be published through existing means (of course, we all look forward to the day when journals are like dodos but back in reality ...) with authorship assigned according to clearly laid out principles (legal issues notwithstanding).

• CommentRowNumber3.
• CommentAuthorTobyBartels
• CommentTimeJul 9th 2009

For the record, the discussion on the Café is here (but as Andrew says, the thread got diverted).

Andrew wrote above:

What I have in mind is that the original author (who, let me remind you, intended there to be original work) to put up some sort of disclaimer/terms-of-use on the page

And Andrew interpreted Eric as saying:

Now Eric proposes that at some point between the initial import of expository material and the final paper being written then the whole lot is carted off to a private space.

So how about this? At some point between the initial import of expository material and the final paper being written then the writing of the paper itself is begun a new entry in category: drafts. That entry will state upfront what the authorship model is. It can be like the disclaimer/terms-of-use that Andrew mentioned, except that the authors are largely known by this point, so it will be easier to write. And since these pages are in their own category, it's easy to see where they are too. Any eventual policy on credit and copyright can even make reference to this category, allowing those pages to go their own way.

There's nothing to stop anybody from doing this right now, although only Eric (who doesn't care so much about authorship and so didn't say anything about it) has done so.

Although I wouldn't want anybody to feel obligated to do it this way, here's the sort of disclaimer that I would write (in a standout box at the top of each page):

This page is not like other pages on the nLab; it has been created for the express purpose of writing a paper. The currently accepted author list is […], and we are treating this paper the same as if we had written it outside of the Lab. In particular, we may publish it under our names.

Anyone else should feel free to make comments or ask questions in a query box; for purposes of acknowledgement, we will treat this as if it was sent to us by email or the like. If you edit the page (as you might to correct typos), we're grateful, but any such edits to this page will be a gift to the authors; if you don't like that, then put corrections in a query box or tell us some other way as you normally would when correcting another person's draft. If you want to join the author list, then say so in a query box or tell us some other way as you normally would if you wanted to collaborate on a paper.

This would be sort of a private (to a small group) page, but done in public where anyone can observe and comment upon it in progress.

• CommentRowNumber4.
• CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
• CommentTimeJul 9th 2009

Yes, that would work. I guess that my ideal of just being able to submit a page off the lab would need a lot more flexibility from journals than seems currently available. So anything that is sent for publication would pretty much have to be designed to be such.

One thing that this would require in the general terms and conditions is something that ensures that the initial author list is fair. Something that ensures that if someone has actually proved something that is wanted in the putative paper then they are offered joint authorship, but which also ensures that someone who just corrected a few typos can't hold it to ransom with demands for joint authorship status.

I can foresee that it would be useful to have three levels of authorship: first level authorship means involved in the main ideas and mathematics, second level means that they contributed mathematically but just to a small piece of the project, third level means that they helped with the formating and spelling and stuff. However, at the moment journals just have two: authors and acknowledgements.

This feeds back into the "original research" discussion as it's the people that contributed any original research that would need to be consulted so we need some way to readily identify them.

• CommentRowNumber5.
• CommentAuthorTobyBartels
• CommentTimeJul 9th 2009

One thing that this would require in the general terms and conditions is something that ensures that the initial author list is fair.

Why is anything required in the terms and conditions? (I have yet to see an argument that we need any terms and conditions, but I'll just focus on this item for now.) If somebody posts a proof of a theorem to a blog, or sends it to me by email, or writes it up on a blackboard, or even recites it to me using sound waves in my physical presence, then I have no right (by common academic standards of plagiarism) to use that proof in a paper without acknowledgement. The Lab creates nothing new here. If you would be willing to write a proof and send it to people off the Lab, then you should be willing to do it on the Lab —maybe more so, since the Lab provides a clear record so it's harder to cheat you. Then if people propose to write a paper, very well … but if they're cheating you, then it's there for all to see and they can't get away with it any more than they could if all communication were done by email, in person, etc.

• CommentRowNumber6.
• CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
• CommentTimeJul 10th 2009

I agree about theorems, but there's also the wealth of minor results that are often used. It's not uncommon to come across "I'm grateful to X for the following proof" or "This is proved in Y but for ... we repeat it here".

There's a grey area in the middle that could cause problems for both sides. On the one side, the authors use a result without properly acknowledging it. On the other side, someone demands joint authorship for only a minor result. The openness of the n-lab provides a level of protection against the first, but not the second.

When it's clear that a paper is under way then minor contributions of this form would be submitted knowing their status. But before that stage then it's not so clear.

As a daft example, on the Frölicher page there's a missing proof - that the category of Hausdorff Frölicher spaces is cartesian closed. Suppose you come along and fill that in for me. Later, I decide that the Frölicher page has some interesting stuff on that I think should be published. Maybe, in fact, I want to publicise Hausdorff Frölicher spaces. Do I really need to get your permission to include your proof of cartesian closedness? It's only a short proof of a minor result (I think! At least for the purposes of this example let's assume so). It's possible that in a normally written paper I wouldn't even source such a result but would just include it with its proof.

I realise that this is just a load of hypotheticals at the moment and this may be one that needs to be tried out before it's clear what the real issues are (if there really are any!) and how to solve them.

• CommentRowNumber7.
• CommentAuthorTobyBartels
• CommentTimeJul 10th 2009

Here's another hypothetical situation: You write a bit about Frölicher spaces to the categories mailing list, including a list of results. But, you note, you don't yet have a proof of one of these. (And if you would never write that mail, then suppose that Urs writes it instead.) Then I reply with the missing proof.

Now you want to write a paper. What do you do?

Why can't you do the same thing in your hypothetical situation?

• CommentRowNumber8.
• CommentAuthorEric
• CommentTimeJul 10th 2009

I like these hypotheticals. We should put them on "meta" on the corresponding page if for no other reason to reassure people that they have nothing to worry about.

• CommentRowNumber9.
• CommentAuthorAndrew Stacey
• CommentTimeJul 10th 2009

I guess that there are two differences. One is that on the n-lab then I would be literally cutting and pasting stuff from one n-lab page to another, which makes the claim of plagarism that much more forceful. This probably isn't a major issue. The second is the intent of the person who provides the proof. If I send an email, say to the categories mailing list, then the responder is perfectly aware that I am very likely asking for something which I intend to put into a published paper. Thus they reply with the expectation that I will include that result. The convention says that I would at least acknowledge "helpful responders to questions on the categories mailing list", if not them personally, but because the initial understanding of the purpose of my question is there, no-one would expect me to come back later and ask for permission to include their proof in my paper. I think that this is true even if someone else asks the question. The mere fact of asking a question implies that you want to use the answer and most likely include it in some paper somewhere.

However, leaving a gap on the n-lab isn't the same as formally asking a question. For all you know, I may not care if the category of Hausdorff Frölicher spaces is cartesian closed or not. Or I may know, but just haven't put the proof in yet. It's even less clear with something that doesn't have an obvious gap. Suppose, for example, that you come up with a characterisation of regular Frölicher spaces and put that in the page. Later on, I decide that I want to include that in a list of "properties of Frölicher spaces" in a paper. It's not a major result, but still something useful. Can I just cut-and-paste your work, or do I need to ask your permission, or do I need to rewrite it?

Actually, now I think about it, the cutting-and-pasting is part of the issue. It's one of those irregular verbs:

I carry out wide-ranging and detailed research, You cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, He, she, or it has been convicted of plagarism.

At some point, cutting-and-pasting turns from a harmless labour-saving device into plagarism.

As many other areas of life are discovering, new technology does bring a bit of light into formerly grey areas. Whilst I don't wish to overblow this hypothetical situation, I also don't want anyone to get into trouble over it, or even get close to getting into trouble.

• CommentRowNumber10.
• CommentAuthorTobyBartels
• CommentTimeJul 10th 2009

If I send an email, say to the categories mailing list, then the responder is perfectly aware that I am very likely asking for something which I intend to put into a published paper. Thus they reply with the expectation that I will include that result.

Well, the email in my hypothetical scenario didn't include a question; I wrote it carefully! A similar email might, of course, but then so might a Lab page.

I must admit, I was assuming that of course you would not cut and paste. One's own papers are written in one's own style, and I wouldn't cut and paste something that somebody else wrote in an email or on the Lab. I might conceivably cut and paste an edited version of something that I wrote, but I would probably want to rewrite it if the edits were anything more than fixing simple errors. (And I would probably put something in the acknowledgements to thank somebody who corrected typos, whether this was done by email or in the Lab or even in the special drafts page for the paper.)

I guess that I'm expecting more from authors than you want. I would like to have drafts pages that are special, but normally, if somebody makes an addition to a page, then they wrote that part and nobody else should claim to have written it. So a paper's author should rewrite the words and credit the ideas —the same thing that I was taught to do when writing term papers. I guess that you want the Lab to have some global terms of service where people agree to allow their contributions to be acknowledged at the discretion of ‘a team of respected arbitrators’ following specified guidelines. Whereas I would not want anything global that people have to agree to, while individual drafts pages could be pretty flexible in what they expect, stated up front on each page.