Tuesday, April 13, 2010

My Biased Coin: What's the Co-Author Line?

My Biased Coin: What's the Co-Author Line?

An excellent post and excellent comments on Michael Mitzenmacher's blog. I replied and found I'd written so much I might as well blog. By now the topic is whether the identification of a "good" problem is a material contribution to its solution--originally, does a person deserve authorial credit for framing (but not providing) a solution? I'm riffing onto the notion of what a good problem is.

If you take the view that generating a good problem is a non-trivial contribution then isn't what happened to Michael akin to plagiarism?

My wife did her graduate work in English literature at a school with a strong engineering program. She noticed a certain type of student every semester: undergrads, usually engineering or pre-med, who had registered for her literature course only to satisfy distributional requirements and were very smart, very diligent--but could not manage "interesting" ideas, no matter how hard they tried. She found this heartbreaking--especially the ones who thought that med schools would sneer at a B+. Kids would come to office hours and ask, sometimes in tears, what they can do to turn a logical, systematic, earnest, but dry B+ paper into an A. She'd explain that by the standards of her profession--literary criticism--that it's not enough to be thorough or precise or clear or even persuasive. If you can't pick a topic that a reader would find interesting, you haven't done all your work. In some sense, if criticism isn't interesting, if only to other critics, then it's not valuable.

Worse, a sense of the interesting is the last thing to fall into place. She could work with them on clarity, on use of evidence, on logical structure and rhetorical devices... and there were many kids who, over the course of a semester, could make great leaps forward in those areas. But the judgment of what a finding "meant", of how it contributed to the field, or how one idea seemed more central or intriguing or revealing than another, was too much. She suspected it was because they were excellent at grasping and re-creating rule-based outcomes, but she couldn't give a rule of thumb for what made something interesting.

Myself, I am conflicted about how to value interestingness. I have sympathy for the argument that it's fuzzy, subjective, and sometimes just a codeword for "conventional" or "mainstream" or, relatedly, in the mainstream of the latest fads and trends within the field. At the same time, I'm also moved by the argument that a profession, by definition, has standards, and that for the typical case there's a wisdom of crowds. If you show an idea to 10 researchers and none of them is intrigued, isn't there something we can conclude?

Put another way, as an empiricist, how can you possibly value interestingess? And as a curator of an intellectual discipline, how can you not?