From Collaboration to Collaboratory
JOHN W. JOST
INTERNATIONAL UNION OF PURE AND APPLIED CHEMISTRY
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry was founded on collaborations. Begun in 1919, the IUPAC produces standards and recommendations on nomenclature, symbols, terminology, and analytical procedures used in chemical research. The IUPAC encompasses some 1,000 people working on different projects, in groups of 2 to 20 scientists scattered around the world. More than half of all these people are in the United States or Europe. But the Union also includes collaborators in many other parts of the world, such as India, Pakistan, Argentina, Japan, and Australia, who can find it difficult to participate physically in IUPAC projects.
The normal method for producing standards hasn't changed for the past 80 years. A proposed standard is drafted and then circulated for comment. The proposal is annotated and rewritten. There are more comments. Then there is a meeting and discussion. Then someone thinks about the standard again and there are more comments. Two years later there is another meeting and so on. E-mail has accelerated this process but only a little.
What we really need are tools that will allow participants to do joint authoring. Although joint authoring is a standard part of science, when the point of a document is in the details regarding the physical appearance of the text, small complications such as different fonts can be very frustrating. Even when the collaborators are all using the same version of a program, what appears on the screen, or is printed, can vary unpredictably. Even recommending a particular font for a specific symbol can cause problems. It can be difficult to specify these things unambiguously. When you send an e-mail attachment—and you are lucky if it arrives in one piece—your collaborator is likely to receive a document with symbols that are not those you intended. What you designated as specific symbols may, on someone else's machine, appear as something else. Realizing what is happening and dealing with it can consume an inordinate amount of time. The result is that we still rely on paper to provide the baseline for discussions of a manuscript.
All of this is frustrating and very low tech. We are not talking about steering a radiotelescope or obtaining the correct settings on a gigahertz spectrometer. We are dealing with silly things like fonts, mail attachments, and symbols. Tools that can solve these silly problems should be available on the Web. We cannot expect
everyone who wants to participate in a project to change their software setup just to work on a particular project. People in such places as Zimbabwe want to participate but don't always have access to the latest commercial software. Everyone wants participation from as many parts of the world as possible, so we need to reduce the barriers.
The bottom line is that organizations such as IUPAC need compatible, fundamental tools that will enhance collaboration by creating collaboratories. Before we worry about high-speed, real-time, full-motion video connections, some thought should be given to fundamental joint authoring tools that allow people to reliably see and edit a document from any computer on the Internet.