Doing research, like making music?

Doing research, like making music?

Crowd-sourced reflections on collaborative research, play, and emergence

Creative Commons Licence
Doing research, like making music? by Srikanth Sugavanam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Sometime towards the end of last year, I got an epiphany, and let it float in the Twitter-verse.

It stemmed from a music video of a live jazz-Indian music fusion performance, which I would like to think is a prime example of collaborative emergence –

When I say collaborative emergence in the context of music, I mean the following. When you put in a group of people who are experts in their respective forms, and let them play off each other – unusual synergies arise: these are of the kind which the individual artists wouldn’t have themselves thought of, at all. The element of improvisation then plays the role of the positive feedback mechanism. And the more the artists are involved in such collaborations, they become aware of the kind of phrasing that will lead to maximal positive feedback.

The sum becomes greater than the parts. Play leads to Flow.

I have found this element of play lacking when I am doing research. I am not saying that the collaborative research I am doing with my colleagues isn’t rewarding – it is. And my colleagues are also fantastic to work with. But there are several factors beyond our control – writing papers or theses, getting a PhD, securing funding – which lead to our research becoming very goal-driven.

Play makes way for deliverables. Slow science takes the back-burner.

So it got me thinking – how can we introduce the concept of Play into collaborative research? And what is the primary hurdle to overcome?

The conventional model of dissemination of scientific discovery is via papers, where typically the authors are named in the order of their contribution to their work. Sadly, sometimes this leads to disconcertment, and puts up subconscious walls that ‘attenuate’ the positive feedback that is needed for emergence. In essence, the risk lies in the dissonance of goals of the individuals, leading to the collective being barely held together. 

Then, what if we change the goal – not writing papers, but aiming for emergence?

True, this is a very rose-tinted glasses view of the world in which academic research operates. But it is not impossible to ‘Imagine’. If like-minded individuals (i.e. researchers) sharing this common vision can find the time to indulge in this play-approach to research, even if for a small amount of time – I strongly believe that emergence is guaranteed.

This led to my tweet about doing research as a music band. As I clarified in a further response –

I was expecting a moderate level of interaction, and to a certain extent even feared completely dismissal. But I was pleasantly surprised to see different conversational threads emerging. Some commented on the underlying problems of team-dynamics, some on the system of academic research, others on the aspects of authorship and the need to train researchers.

There were band name suggestions too.


It was too good a conversation to let go undocumented, and so I committed to curating it –

…And then, I let it brew for a bit too long. The holidays came and went, then came January paperwork, and then we starting getting used to the new way of our quarantined lives.

When I came back to this thread finally a bit more than a week ago, clearly I had a problem at my hand – how am I going to unearth all these conversational threads!!?

Twitter-bots came to the rescue.

First, I used a twitter-bot called @QuotedReplies. It generates a search results page of the people who quote-tweet your original tweet. This helped me find out how wide the retweets were, and what was the engagement level in those retweets. A particular retweet that got a lot of traffic was by @j_bertolotti, whom you might already know and follow for his fantastic physics related animations.

Then came the next challenge – how on earth am I going to unearth all the conversational threads (reply to a reply to a reply to a…)? Some kind of a Twitter tree would be great to have, so I just googled for one. And the Elders of the Google were kind enough to lead me to Treeverse.

This is a very useful browser add-on for Twitter-feed analysis that presents all conversation threads in the form of an interactive tree. See below for example –

Interactive link to the Tree above –

I could now view the conversation threads in a more systematic way. For instance, @AaronSlepkov raised an important point about authorship and contribution –

@yilmazhasan85 highlighted the channel of incorporating such a mindset within an academic framework that requires training of future researchers –

@SouvikB92037587 said what was on all our minds – the dynamics of team-work. This is a challenge indeed, and it will require some mentorship and study of precedences to course-steer.

@MattPirkowski presented a theoretical evolutionary biology perspective, and honestly I am still trying to understand it.

Treeverse also helped me to unravel some interesting conversation threads in Jacopo’s tweet –

The link to the interactive version is

There were some gems along the way in his. See for instance @ValFadeev’s comments –

He is talking about Nicolas Bourbaki, apparently the greatest mathematician who never was. I had no idea that such a concept had already been in ‘play’ – pardon the pun, which itself arose out of play – this time no pun intended. I implore you to read the article in the link above – the origin story in itself is fascinating. It stands to evidence that such collectives can in fact give rise to impactful bodies of work.

Along similar lines, @_julesh_’s retweet talks about Hardy-Littlewood rules –

As per Wikipedia –

In a 1947 lecture, the Danish mathematician Harald Bohr reported a colleague as saying, “Nowadays, there are only three really great English mathematicians: Hardy, Littlewood, and Hardy–Littlewood.”[16]:xxvii

This link neatly summarises the Hardy-Littlewood rules. A 100-word blurb here will simply not do justice to the internal mechanics behind these rules, so I will reserve a discussion of this for a deeper reflection.

And then there was this fascinating Easter egg I had no idea about.

In several tweets, I could see the conversation veer towards order of authorship and identification of contribution. This clearly highlights the primary concerns of practicing academics – career progression requires that we provide evidence of our contributions, and the most straightforward way to do this is via showing authorship order and contribution statements.

The point I am trying to make is different – if we wish to achieve scientific emergence, we need to work in a collaborative framework that will help us to arrive at something more than just a sum of parts. We need to innovate on the very way we do research.

We need more Nicolas Bourbakis.

Cover image –

Creative Commons Licence
Doing research, like making music? by Srikanth Sugavanam is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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