Verification Difficulty in Collaboration
© 15 November 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Sometimes it is hard to share research because the results are not readily verified.


theory In complexity theory, a branch of computer science, there are two famous classes of problems: P is the class of problems that are the “‍easy‍” to solve and NP is the class of problems for which putative solutions are “‍easy‍” to verify. There are also problems that are not known We still don’t have a proof that P ≠ NP or that any “‍hard‍” problems exist…. to be in either class, problems for which even verifying that a putative solution is a solution seems to be difficult.

Under most circumstances, the principle motivation to collaborate is because the task at hand is hard. Sometimes it is hard only in scope, like creating an index for the 1940 US Census, and the collaboration is relatively straightforward to implement. Other times it is hard in isolation, like trying to track down records that refer to a particular John Smith.

genealogy Genealogical collaboration is an example of a research domain where even a flawless conclusion is not trivially verified. Consequently, sharing results is insufficient to collaborate. When a solution is hard to verify it becomes necessary to share not only the results of research but also the process used to get there so that others can follow the same reasoning to verify that your solution makes sense.

I find it interesting to categorize different kinds of research “‍I designed a fast system‍” is much easier to verify than “‍I designed a safe system‍”. In experimental sciences it is common for the methodology to receive more space than the findings in publications. At the other extreme, mathematics papers often present only the results (which are theorems and proofs) without even mentioning the path the researcher took to get there.

From time to time I hear someone trying to convince someone else of something without any traction. Such conversations can be thought of as collaborating on the problem of figuring out how the world works. Often the conversations lack traction because one party is trying to present hard-to-verify results to someone who does not want to spend the effort to check them out. Alas, many people seem to just accept at face value hard-to-verify assertions and fill their heads with all kinds of bad science.

Some things are easy to discover, some easy to verify, and some aren’t easy in any way. Finding a way to share verifiable elements of research is one of the ongoing challenges of communication.

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