“There are clear advantages to team science… Would this model work for philosophy?”
Discussion is welcome—especially from philosophers who have their own labs, or have been part of large collaborative projects—either here or at Crooked Timber, where a version of this post first appeared.
by Ingrid Robeyns
As part of a new 5-year project, “Visions for the future,” I’ll be experimenting with and developing the idea of “team philosophy”. But what is team philosophy?
As a first approximation, the idea is to produce philosophical knowledge as a team, rather than as an individual. In many of the empirical sciences, this is standard: people in labs, but also empirical scholars in fields like politics or sociology, often bring together their different types of expertise, or simply divide up the work, and then write a paper together. Can this practice of ‘team science’ shed light on what ‘team philosophy’ could be and what its advantages and limits might be?
There are clear advantages to team science. One is that there are limits to what any one person might know, and limits to the time any one person has for mastering new empirical methods or techniques. Collaboration can be an efficient way of bringing different kinds of specialized knowledge and skills to a project.
Another advantage is that, with a team, more people are truly invested in making the ultimate research as good as possible. Each member of the team has a stake in the research being produced, which should provide an incentive to be genuinely committed to the quality of everyone’s work (in contrast to the brief and sometimes superficial comments one might make on the work of “mere” colleagues who ask for feedback).
Many researchers are fed-up with the excessively competitive nature of academia, so the ability of a team approach to offer a more collaborative model is a further advantage. This was a theme that was prominent in a podcast episode on this topic with professor of comparative politics Carolien van Ham; she also confirmed that team science reduces work pressure, since you do not have to figure out everything yourself, which can be time-consuming (in non-empirical fields, the equivalent might be not feeling you have to read up on all papers and books that might be relevant).
Since I have very little experience with empirical team science (this paper being an exception), I am not sure what the disadvantages are. There seems to me a risk of domination of the full professor/PI if they basically impose team science on the junior staff (which in several countries includes PhD-scholars who are not students but employees). Those PIs might not want to use team philosophy for laudable reasons, but in essence because they have run out of ideas themselves or want publications with as little work as possible.
Another source of conflict is the order of the names on the publication—which apparently is important in some sciences, and where (from what I’ve been told) it is especially those whose names are listed first and last that are granted full credit (when I’ve co-written theoretical papers, we’ve always sticked to the alphabetical order, and, as far as I can recall, with little or no discussion). There may be more disadvantages; I’d love to hear from those of you who are doing this kind of work. One worry I’d have is who decides what questions to pursue, since, by definition, one doesn’t always follow one’s own ideas or hypotheses, but needs to collaborate.
Would this model work for philosophy? At first sight, it doesn’t work, since philosophers see themselves, and see their discipline, as being about ideas and arguments that are generated in someone’s brain, and that do not require empirical analyses outside that brain. Ideas tend to be seen as from someone and hence the locus of knowledge generation is primarily the individual. My own view is that this is not entirely true, since comments on those ideas can have a huge impact on how the scholarship develops—but there is nevertheless some truth to it.
There is a good amount of co-authoring going on in philosophy, but in most cases this is between two people, not a team of, say, four people or more. When two people co-author, it is often also because they have complementary knowledge, or because they like each other’s work and believe that if they were to set out to have scholarly conversations, something interesting might emerge. (To the extent to which one sees group work in philosophy, it is in its more empirical subfields, such as experimental philosophy.)
My hunch is that, in philosophy, we should try to experiment with writing more in larger groups. This could take different forms. It could be for a smaller question, e.g. a critique on a new theory that has been proposed in philosophy. I remember some years ago having a highly energetic lunchtime conversation with a bunch of colleagues, who had all read a particular new book, and we all felt there were some problems with it—but we all had different critiques (which were consistent with each other). Each of us only had a limited point to make, but all the critiques together mounted to something much more interesting. I then proposed that we’d book a room for a couple of days and work out that conversation in a paper. It didn’t happen, but this would have been a great thing to try.
Team philosophy might also work well if the goal is to provide a state of the art of a certain discussion or subfield. Over the last years I’ve been involved in a huge consortium of philosophers based in the Netherlands who work on the ethics of socially disruptive technologies. At some point, I proposed to write a book with the entire consortium, laying out the state of the art of this research (in the end I couldn’t co-author since I was fully immersed in writing my book on limitarianism, but I did provide comments on the entire draft and really enjoyed it). It required a skilled lead-editor, and it required a publisher who is willing to publish unconventional formats, but the result is great, and a nice example of team philosophy.
Team philosophy might also be valuable in exploring “Big Questions”. That’s the case for my new project, which is all about alternative socio-economic systems. Over the years I’ve studied (and published on) some dimensions of some of those proposed alternatives, but there are many of them. Moreover, if one works on such Big Questions, such as entire systems, one needs to bring together the expertise of different people; some of us know about systems of the provisioning of care and unpaid work, others about migration or international trade, others about financial systems or technology, still others about labor markets and work, etc. And there are very important reasons why political philosophers should look into those questions. If we want to take seriously the challenge that we must come up with answers to these Big Questions, this is almost impossible to do for a single person.
In sum, some particular questions can only be answered by collaborating, hence engaging in team philosophy.
Do all the advantages and risks/disadvantages that apply to team science apply to team philosophy?
One advantage that doesn’t seem to apply straightforwardly, is the complementary use of methods, since nearly all of philosophy tends to use, very roughly, the same set of methods (conceptual analysis, argumentation, etc.). Our empirical colleagues talk about being skilled in survey design, or field studies, or lab experiments, or advanced statistical tools as reasons to collaborate; this isn’t (generally) applicable to philosophy. But the equivalent here might be dividing up the huge literature that one needs to read in order to master all that’s relevant to answer certain questions.
One additional risk for philosophy is the dominant practice of awarding much more prestige to single-authored papers, and, in the case of junior philosophers, to think they must prove themselves by having published single-authored papers. I know PhD-supervisors who have given such extensive comments on some draft papers of their PhD-candidates—including passing on original ideas—that, if they had not worked in philosophy but in another field, the result would have been multiple-authored publications. Still, these supervisors did not request co-authorship, since the norms in the discipline of philosophy forbid this: the relevant norm is that “giving comments on the work of a PhD-candidate, no matter how elaborate, is not a reason to request co-authorship”. Moreover, if these PhD-supervisors are caring human beings, they know that they are likely to harm the future labor market prospects of these PhD-candidates if they were to request/impose co-authorship, and hence they will/should not do it.
If one wants to experiment with team philosophy—as I do—I think it is important to be aware of power differences in academia, and hence do what one can to ensure safe relations between PI’s and PhDs/Postdocs on a project, and make sure the interests of those who do not yet have tenured jobs are sufficiently protected. My hunch is that this implies that for PhD-scholars, team philosophy is generally problematic, and that for Postdocs, they must have sufficient room to still do their own single-authored work. And if it is the case that the everyday practices of philosophy hinder the particular team philosophy that is needed to answer the Big Questions, then we need to transform the philosophical discipline. Why not just make collaboration in larger groups more common, and value that work more?
Here’s the “tl;dr”: For the academic discipline of philosophy, for the human beings working in that discipline, and for the world in which we are in need of philosophical reflection and analysis, there is much to win with more team philosophy.