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January 10, 2016

On Digital Mathematics and Drive-By Contributors

Posted by Mike Shulman

At the Joint Mathematics Meetings last week there was a special session entitled Mathematical Information in the Digital Age of Science (MIDAS), with talks about structures to organize, disseminate, and formalize mathematics using computers and the Internet. The organizer, Patrick Ion, had invited me to give a talk based on my experience with projects such as the nLab and the HoTT Coq and Book projects. I had a hard time deciding what the audience at the session would benefit most from hearing, and I ended up changing the talk around right up until the minute I stood up to give it. But people seemed to like it, so I thought I would post the final version of the slides:

Part of my difficulty was in trying to extract some coherent message that would be memorable and useful. What I ended up with was a call to embrace plurality: be it in software, organizational structure, project goals, contributor involvement, or even mathematical foundations.

One comment that seemed to particularly interest the audience was about “drive-by contributors”: people who come along and contribute a little something to a project, but then go on their way without getting seriously involved. Some drive-by contributors are experts who just want their subject to be treated correctly; others just have a particular itch to scratch; or just happen to be reading something and notice an error. For instance, most nLab contributors have only edited a handful of pages; and many of the “contributors” to the HoTT Book github repository are readers who just submitted a couple of pull requests to fix typos.

There can sometimes be a temptation to be sad about this phenomenon: to wish that more people would get more seriously involved, rather than just making a few edits and continuing on their way. But realistically, most drive-by contributors don’t have the time or interest to dedicate a significant amount of their life to a project that they have no reason to feel particularly attached to. Instead of being sad that they didn’t get more involved, we should be happy that they got involved at all! And we should celebrate the technology, like wikis and distributed version control, that allows people to contribute only a little bit, realizing that the alternative is their contributing nothing at all.

To be honest, when I wrote the talk I wasn’t consciously aware of having heard the phrase “drive-by contributor” before; it just seemed like a natural way to describe the concept. Afterwards, prompted by a comment from someone in the audience, I went and googled it. I found it being used occasionally in the open-source software community, in a casual way suggesting that it’s a well-known phrase; so probably I’d heard it before and had it sink into my subconscious. Does anyone know its first (or most influential) usage?

Posted at January 10, 2016 4:52 AM UTC

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Re: On Digital Mathematics and Drive-By Contributors

I’d never heard it before. I presume it’s an outgrowth of ‘drive-by shooting’, a phrase that seems to have become widely used in the US during my lifetime… in the 1980s or 1990s, maybe?

Posted by: John Baez on January 13, 2016 5:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: On Digital Mathematics and Drive-By Contributors

If you are writing a paper, how do you give proper attribution to drive by contributors. Do you just give a blanket statement in the acknowledgements section to the effect of “and we thank everyone for their useful comments”? How much contribution does someone have to give before they deserve to be mentioned by name?

Posted by: Jeffery Winkler on January 13, 2016 11:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: On Digital Mathematics and Drive-By Contributors

On citing the nLab, see here. Basically you don’t name individuals (no more than anyone names Wikipedia article authors, or authors of articles of any wiki); what you do is give the title of the page and the version number. Anyone who is curious can find out who contributed to a page by thumbing through version numbers, where at the bottom of the page you can see who performed the last edit which produced that particular version. Many contributors are anonymous or pseudonymous anyway.

Posted by: Todd Trimble on January 14, 2016 2:22 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: On Digital Mathematics and Drive-By Contributors

There are two different questions. One is how to cite a product that was written by a lot of people like a wiki page, and Todd is right there. The other is if a single person or small group is writing a paper that they want to get credit for, but they also want to permit drive-by contributions. I think the best thing to do in that case is to be explicit up-front that drive-by contributions are welcomed but do not in general merit coauthor credit or acknowledgment by name. The HoTT book repository contains a file called that includes:

We are very happy to receive suggestions which fix typos, formatting, and obvious mathematical errors; which clarify exposition in a straightforward way; or which add new technical functionality (such as versions for other devices). We are not asking for new mathematical content from the public at this time.

We are very grateful to everyone who is showing interest in our project, and to anyone who helps us improve it! However, in order to avoid any misunderstanding later, we should mention upfront that your contributions will only be recorded on github commit logs, but not in the book itself.

Now even with such a warning, it could very well be that a non-author might end up contributing enough to merit an acknowledgment by name. I don’t see any reason why this boundary should be any different than for assistance received without using DVCS technology; the author(s) should decide which contributions are worthy of named acknowledgment.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on January 14, 2016 4:39 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: On Digital Mathematics and Drive-By Contributors

I am in the very final stages of editing lecture notes that will be published later this year by Dover. (I’ll write more about this project here at some point.)

The entire genesis of the manuscript has taken place online - I figured a wider readership wouldn’t hurt - but what I had not anticipated was how much this would improve the written text.

The course website encourages readers to send comments, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of “drive-by contributors” (many of whom I don’t know personally) and the detailed and thoughtful suggestions they provided. I’ve received excellent expository recommendations, ideas for new exercises, as well as the usual alerts concerning typos and errors.

I guess the point of this post is to encourage others to try the same experiment. If you’ve written something that is reasonably polished (enough so that it is worth someone else’s time to read), there can be enormous benefits to suppressing your embarrassment at “publishing” something unfinished. Or at least there were for me.

(PS: In a book, the acknowledgments section can be quite long, so I’ve decided to thank everyone who contributed. I’m quite happy to do so, as I’m extremely grateful for the feedback.)

Posted by: Emily Riehl on January 25, 2016 5:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: On Digital Mathematics and Drive-By Contributors

Thanks for this, Emily! It should be a good stepping point from Tom’s book, or a source for extension material.

Posted by: David Roberts on January 30, 2016 12:09 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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