Peer Production and Science

I wanted to write a quick note about an article I just finished reading: “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and The Nature of the Firm”, by Yochai Benkler. I’m a bit behind the curve here — it was published in 2002 — but my initial reaction is that it’s deeply profound. The paper analyzes peer-production systems, like Wikipedia or open-source software projects, from an economic perspective, with the “economic” construed broadly (as economists are wont to do). That is, it treats peer production as an efficiency phenomenon, rather than a social one. I hadn’t thought about things that way at all before. There’s a really interesting assessment of the conditions in which peer-production systems end up making sense, but rather than attempting to abstract the article myself, you should just click on the link.

I’m excited not only by the analysis but also by the obvious commonalities between peer-production systems, science, and academia in general. Benkler mentions these repeatedly but doesn’t investigate them deeply. (With the piece weighing in at 79 pages already, I don’t blame him.) It seems to me that it’d be extremely illuminating to do this, especially because, if you ask me, there’s a widespread sense in the community that changes are brewing in the fundamental way that science is conducted and the academic profession works. In the nine years since this paper was published, someone has surely pursued this.

My intuition from Benkler’s paper is actually strong pessimism about peer-produced science as most people discuss it now, but a sense that maybe you’ll see much more bifurcation of “science” into things that are amenable to peer-production (Galaxy Zoo being the incredibly obvious example) and things that aren’t (perhaps this?). But this is a very vague feeling, and this seems like a topic where superficial thoughts are not likely to be correct.

The next thing on my list to read might be Hal Varmus’ “E-Biomed Proposal”, referenced by Benkler’s article, which seems to give Hal’s thoughts on what science might, or should, look like in the future. But it is late, and the proposal is long.

(Benkler’s paper springboards from a famous work by Ronald Coase, “The Nature of the Firm”, which considers the questions of why firms need to exist in a market economy [“couldn’t everyone just be their own independent little entrepreneur?”], which is one of those good questions that I hadn’t even thought to ask before. I found it via “Dean’s Penguin”, by Mark Schmitt, applying that thinking to Howard Dean’s campaign, via Matt Yglesias.)