Open Codex HISTORICAL entry

2007 Feb 13 | Grey literature, stigmergy and priority

Last week I read a provocative paper by Helen Nissenbaum (2002) where she considers the norms, values, and ends previously served by the convention of scholarly priority, and, now that the contextual landscape is changing because of electronic media, whether intellectual property (patents) can serve just as well in their stead. Helen recommended it to me while we were discussing my dissertation chapter on encyclopedic production, including questions of copyrights and plagiarism. This chapter is partly based on a draft I wrote in 2005 in which I argued the concept of stigmergy is helpful in understanding the sort of socialty involved in the cumulative production of knowledge in reference works.

An irony is that Nissenbaum's paper speaks to the question of scholarly priority in the age of the Internet, which bears on my adoption of the term stigmergy. (She doesn't mention blogs or wikis, but instead refers to "wildcat publishers," "grey literature," and whether there is any scholarly obligation to search these realms for the purposes of citation.)

I think I first wrote of stigmergy in the spring of 2005, in a draft I made available on this blog on September 30. Roughly a year later, I read Mark Elliott's piece Stigmergic Collaboration: The Evolution of Group Work in the May issue of the online MC/ Journal. Elliott explores the idea much more thoroughly than I did or will, and that is good. But how do I deal with the question of priority and citation? I definitely want to -- and do -- cite Elliott in my present version of the chapter, but what to do with my earlier version? I don't know Elliott and assume he knows nothing of me. And I don't feel that proprietary about saying Wikipedia might be stigmergic. And for all I know we read the same thing about wasps -- though I was also inspired by early reference work compilers likening their copying of others' work to a useful "busy bee." But I don't want it to appear I am simply borrowing the idea from elsewhere and I prefer not to cite earlier "unpublished" drafts. This concern with priority is in the face of the biggest irony of all: an argument of this chapter is that knowledge is inherently interdependent and cumulative!

Presently, the text in question reads:

Stigmergy is a term coined by Pierre-Paul Grasse to describe how wasps and termites collectively build complex structures; as Karsai (2004:101) writes, it "describes the situation in which the product of previous work, rather than direct communication among builders, induces [and directs how] the wasps perform additional labor." In addition to my proposal that this notion might be helpful in understanding Wikipedia collaboration (Reagle 2005fss), Mark Elliot (2006) has also, more thoroughly, argued the same: "As stigmergy is a method of communication in which individuals communicate with one another by modifying their local environment… [t]he concept of stigmergy therefore provides an intuitive and easy-to-grasp theory for helping understand how disparate, distributed, ad hoc contributions could lead to the emergence of the largest collaborative enterprises the world has seen" (Elliott 2006:4). However, we need not apply this notion only to new media. For example, stigmergy might also be applicable to Newton’s seemingly generous sentiment of acknowledging the contributions of his predecessors: "If I have seen further [than you and Descartes] it is by standing upon ye shoulders of giants." (As cited in a 1676 letter from Newton to Hooke, by Merton (1993), who details a long history of this aphorism and Newton's probably less than magnanimous intention (Hawking 2002) of insulting Robert Hooke, his short and hunchbacked rival.)

Is this appropriate?

Open Communities, Media, Source, and Standards

by Joseph Reagle