In our CSCW 2014 paper, Collaborative Problem Solving, we present a series of studies examining the processes through which mathematicians are collaborating to solve problems on a question-answering site, MathOverflow. A goal of this work is to understand how individuals collaborate in solving problems as a first step to later be able to improve technology to better support problem solving. With better problem solving tools we may be able to enhance our ability to solve difficult and complex problems.
How does collaboration take place on MathOverflow? One can imagine a few of different ways. For example, collaboration may take place through lengthy discussions in which ideas are exchanged and a final solution arises from the synthesis and progression of ideas in discussion. This would be a very interdependent form of collaboration. Alternatively collaboration may take place independently, in which a problem is broadcast to large enough crowd of people that at least one person has the appropriate expertise to solve the problem on his or her own.
We took a bottom-up approach to fully explore the ways in which individuals were collaborating on MathOverflow. Through open coding of 150 collaborations on MathOverflow we identified 5 basic types of collaborative acts. Although we found evidence of individuals providing complete solutions independently, we also found more interactive collaboration too. Semi-structured interviews with active participants suggested different ways through which these collaborating acts were instrumental in developing a final solution. These observations were later confirmed with quantitative analysis of changes in solution quality over time. For example, primary additions, such as providing information, led to improvements in solution quality by providing a good or better solutions, whereas indirect evaluative contributions, such as clarifying the question, led to improvements in solution quality by inspiring better solutions later.
How does collaboration take place on MathOverflow? Our results suggest that in many cases collaboration on MathOverflow falls somewhere between the highly interdependent collaboration and the highly independent collaboration. On MathOverflow solutions are often built iteratively from independent contributions that gradually build on each other and result in a final solution. Our results also suggest a more nuanced view of collaboration, in which there are special types of contributions that are specific to problem solving, such as bringing into question the nature of the problem.
For more, see our full paper, Collaborative Problem Solving: A Study of MathOverflow.
Yla Tausczik, Niki Kittur, and Bob Kraut, Carnegie Mellon University