Second-mover advantage

by John Q on April 21, 2004

It’s the fate of market innovators to be undercut by new entrants. As noted by Henry, Bill Tozier has hit on the idea of auctioning co-authorship rights, including the acquisition of an Erdös number of 5. As of this posting, the Ebay high bid stands at $US 31.

But Bill has apparently failed to learn the lessons of the dotcom era. The first is to patent everything. As far as I can tell, Bill has failed to file for a business methods patent on his idea, leaving it open to new entrants to imitate him, or even to patent the idea themselves.

The second is that the best way to undercut the competition is to give your product away. Following on this lesson, I’ve decided to set my co-authorship price (including *free* Erdös number of 4) at zero. That’s right, potential co-authors! Send your paper to me with a space for my name on the front page, after yours[1]. SEND NO MONEY! If I like it, I’ll insert my official stamp, and send it off to an appropriate journal. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this earlier!

Just to be boringly clear, my offer is a joke. Bill asserts that his offer (which actually involves doing his share of the work) is serious, and I have no reason to disbelieve him.

fn1. Yes, that’s right! You get to be senior author, on no stronger basis than that you do all the work. How many big-science labs would offer a deal that good?



Bill Tozier 04.21.04 at 12:39 pm

One of many interesting things about the way the Open Source approach has caught on is that it really just made people conscious of the status quo. People have always, after all, written software for free and given it away. But now they do it with a better sense of the value of their effort.

Your move reminds me that the status quo in science (at least in molecular biology) is a lot like software design was back in the day. I’ve worked in and next to a number of labs where absolutely useless senior people were added to papers as a matter of course. Generally, though, this was for their benefit, not that of the other authors.

A suitable improvement, even more in line with the status quo, might be to allow your name to be placed on the paper at the expense of two or three grad students. Yup. That would definitely be a better match….

(Oh, and I’ve drafted an appropriate Press Release in response to your “competitive” move. Bah. What’s that whining noise? :) )


dsquared 04.21.04 at 2:51 pm

I can only assume Eszter is waiting for you pair to compete yourselves into insolvency and then she can step in and really clean up in this segmented market.


Bill Tozier 04.21.04 at 3:31 pm

Because his is being given away fro free, the inevitable scarcity as supplies are depleted will drive him out of business first.

That’s how it works, right?


cdm 04.21.04 at 4:08 pm

This reminds me of a wonderful spoof chain letter that was circulating in academia a decade or so ago: there was a list of names, and you were supposed to make the top person on the list co-author on your next paper, then remove that person from the list, put your name on the bottom, and send on to two more people. Or something like that…


Bill Tozier 04.21.04 at 4:12 pm

I can only assume Eszter is waiting for you pair to compete yourselves into insolvency and then she can step in and really clean up in this segmented market.

It gets worse: Ever since the old days of dotcomming, I still occasionally wake up in a cold sweat worried that my supplier will disintermediate me. I suddenly realize that Mark Newman must be made redundant!


Bill Tozier 04.21.04 at 4:15 pm

Oh, right — that’s not how it works, is it?



Kurotokage 04.21.04 at 4:20 pm

cdm: Thiswas it.


Scipio 04.22.04 at 2:48 pm

That’s just messed up.

Very cool, but come on, people.

BTW, does anyone know how to get from Denzel Washington to Kevin Bacon in no more than one step?


cdm 04.23.04 at 12:16 am

Actually it wasn’t, but that’s pretty much the same idea. (The one I remember was much older, and I’m almost certain it dealt with co-authoring, not citations.)


Florian Lengyel 04.27.04 at 5:43 pm

A Santa Fe Institute-style complex systems analysis of the phenomenon

To an extent, the lower one’s Erdos number, the more one has in common with Erdos. Erdos had many collaborators; those with lower Erdos numbers tend to have more collaborators. Mathematics was a calling for Erdos; I flatter myself that this is generally true for those of us who have lower Erdos numbers. As the Erdos numbers increase, the sense that mathematics is a calling gives way to professional interest; around Erdos number three we observe the Erdos-three mind tormented by thoughts of commercial enterprise–thoughts which only occasionally perturb the equanimity of the Erdos-two mind; by the time we reach Erdos number four, a phase transition has occurred: the attitude of science as a calling has become transmogrified into the glib, hardened attitude that everything has its price.

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