Collaboration, copyright, and reclusive math geniuses

In a recent post, Barbara pulled out this quote from Paul Courant’s article “Scholarship and Academic Libraries (and their kin) in the World of Google,”

Collaboration, across time and space, is the fundamental method of scholarship, and without it we can do nothing of value.

Hmm, what about the solitary researcher who works tirelessly but alone on some arcane, intractable problem? Take for example the mathematician Grigory Perelman, who spent 8 years not publishing but who recently won a Fields Medal (and did not accept it).

Apparently, the lone researcher method is not uncommon in mathematics:

Dr. Perelman’s personal story has parallels to that of Dr. Wiles, who, without confiding in his colleagues, worked alone in his attic on Fermat’s Last Theorem. Though his early work has earned him a reputation as a brilliant mathematician, Dr. Perelman spent the last eight years sequestered in Russia, not publishing. From The New York Times

Now Courant seems to have a very wide notion of collaboration, in which publication in a peer-reviewed venue counts as collaboration. But Courant also says,

Collaboration takes wildly different forms in different disciplines, and how it is done and can be done is affected in different ways by the new information technologies. But a positive (and disruptive) element of the new IT is that almost everywhere it makes collaboration easier, provided we can get at the material.

Here the Perelman story illustrates this point well, as none of the papers he won the Fields for where published in traditional peer-reviewed journals, but rather in arXiv, an open access repository. Perelman did not feel the need or obligation to participate in the traditional peer-review process, believing instead that anyone who wanted to look at his work could do so. For whatever reason, Perelman has decided to opt out of most of the social rituals of his profession, yet open access publishing has enabled him to at least share his work with the world.

Collaboration is a buzzword of the moment and has become a kind of sacred cow in academe. But let’s not define it so broadly that everything becomes collaboration, and let’s not forget that there is much of value in academia done by individuals sitting alone and thinking. That’s why our libraries have quiet nooks as well as group study rooms.

As for new models of publishing, there are few simple generalizations to be made. With Perelman, the highest quality work done in a field has been done in a non-traditional venue, an open access repository. If your ideas are important enough and you get them out, people will pay attention to them, whether you publish in a high prestige peer-reviewed journal or not.

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