Volunteers: does the computer experience translate to chemistry?

One of the spinoffs of having been to scifoo is that I skim over 50+posts / day from the blogs that participants run. Some are multi-author blogs:  Here’s Andy Oram on Tim O’Reilly’s blog, talking about what makes volunteer documenters click. Read it all.

01:47 30/09/2007, Andy Oram, Planet SciFoo
By Andy Oram
[…]If value increasingly comes from communities of volunteers outside the compass of corporate management, isn’t it only right to shift resources to support these communities? I have to deal with that question in my own field of computer documentation, where the shift to community production is as happening as fast as it is anywhere. (I examine this trend in a series of articles about community documentation.) [PMR – listed below] But many industries could ask the same question I explore in this article: how can society shift its resources to support the important new source of value in communities?

Volunteerism needs support

The idea that volunteers play an important social role goes at least as far […]
Volunteers who are paid, of course, are no longer volunteers. Companies have hit upon an enormous number of intermediate forms of reward by now: invitations to focus groups and conferences, honorable mentions, free products, etc. Still, serious problems in the concept of rewarding volunteers have been publicized:

  • Rewards create incentives to game the system, which would ultimately lead productive volunteers to abandon the system as unfair.
  • Even when rewards are fair, they “crowd out” the original incentives that led volunteers to serve in the first place.
  • It’s just plain impossible to determine how much each volunteer’s contribution is worth.

The final point just listed is the killer. The reasons for it are easy to state: the ultimate value created by any new idea may lie far out in the future, and the give-and-take discussion around information makes it hard to trace a valuable idea to an individual or small group. Let’s look at this problem more closely.

The value of information

[…]In computer documentation (as in journalism), certainly, it’s becoming harder and harder to add value to what the community contributes for free. So the challenge becomes how to improve the community’s offerings.
I find the key traits of value in documentation to be:

  • Availability–somebody has to write it in the first place. (Readers also need computers and Internet access in order to meet this goal.)
  • Findability–people need something better than current search techniques to find obscure documents, and particularly need help finding background when they read a document that assumes too much prior knowledge.
  • Quality–this covers such general and complex issues as accuracy, relevance, and readibility.

A particularly urgent aspect of quality is keeping a document up to date. Many a project has annoyed its users by starting out with reasonably good documentation and failing to keep it updated. Somehow, people who enjoyed writing something the first time lose interest in maintaining it. This is just as true for comments in source code and commercial books. (Many of my authors have built their reputations and businesses on books they’ve written, and despite good intentions have been unable to find time to update the books.) I myself have lived out the feeling of writing new documentation for a free software project and then lacking the motivation to go back to it.
Thus, companies and user consortia who want to direct resources toward making software more usable can consider:

  • Offering incentives that make the best people contribute, while trying to avoid invoking the crowding-out phenomenon.
  • Providing paths through documentation, so readers can find what they need in their particular state of knowledge. This task is an ongoing research project for any particular body of documentation.
  • Ensuring continuity, by tracking the need to update documents and finding people to do so.
  • Training contributors to do a better job and make the most of their efforts.

The last of the tasks interests me in particular, because it provides scope for offering my skills as an editor and O’Reilly’s as a publisher. But we need some compensation for it.
I feel funny, of course, offering our services as editors or other quality providers when the original authors might not be paid. But if you accept that it’s harder to recruit people for supporting roles than for leading roles, payment is justified.
To conclude, I think volunteers can be supported without being paid directly. If they know their work will be improved to be more useful and will have lasting value, they’ll have more incentive to contribute.

PMR: and the details:

… writings by Andy Oram about web pages, forums, and other media used by users of technology to educate each other. Articles include (in reverse chronological order):

Andy Oram
Editor, O’Reilly Media
Home page

PMR: This is very relevant to recent development in the Blue Obelisk, where a volunteer community has become the keeper of the SMILES de facto standard. We should read Andy’s thoughts carefully.
The equations are similar but not isomorphic. Why do people work with the BO? Here are some ideas:

  • A sense of community. This is a major reward for many people, being able to keep in touch and knowing that you are on the right track (or more importantly, on the wrong one). And the price of membership, though not explicitly stated in the gift economy, is to contribute and to uphold the ideals of the work.
  • A fuzzy mixture of morals, ethics and politics. It is the “right thing to do”. If that drives some people, great. On the reverse I have been attacked several times for being immoral in promoting various aspects of Open Chemistry – it destroys the jobs of honest hard-working developers. [No, it creates jobs for those people who wish to translate to C21].
  • Personal “academic” karma. This is a major motivation. As the BO succeeds those people who have been associated with it will be asked to write articles for value publications, to cooperate on the next phase of funded Web 2.0 grants, etc. For aspiring scientists to work together.
  • Personal financial reward. This is a powerful and valid motivation. There is lots of potential – I wouldn’t have a job today if I hadn’t contributed to the development of XML. When we look for people to join us, the blogosphere is an obvious recruiting ground.  And as the balance shifts from closed to open there will need to be ways of monetizing Openness. The chemical information market is worth at least low billions of USD – it’s still going to be there in 10 years’ time. But many of the conventional players will be gone and new ones will have taken their place.
  • Fun. Yes, fun. We like writing algorithms. If you are a Sudoku addict you’d enjoy writing a chemical substructure search. We like drawing molecules. Many artists – like Jane Richardson – have joined the community of molecular graphics. We like building second life. We like writing blogs.
  • Changing the world. Everyone contributing to the BO is changing the world… It may not be apparent, but it’s real.

and as Alma Swan, quoting Gandhi, (blogged by Barbara Kirsop) reminded us:

‘first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win’.

The BO has not won yet. It’s somewhere between ignore and laugh, and for the next little while we’d love some documentation volunteers!

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