This page intends to describe the style of social science research that Vipul Naik advocates, in the most matter of fact way possible – I don’t intend to describe my own thoughts of it because they are complicated and still not well-formed. I try to convey both the theory/intuition for why the approach might make sense as well as what actually happens in practice (if it differs from the theory).
The general thrust of the approach, as I understand it, is as follows:
- For inputs to research, emphasize conducting online surveys and writing quick Facebook posts to gather thoughts. De-emphasize academic papers.
- During the research, do things in places that are publicly visible and where the record of changes is accessible (e.g. Git repository and Wikipedia).
- For outputs of the research, separate them into tiers in terms of importance: quick notes or graphs that can fit into pre-existing work, medium-size articles that can build up general knowledge, and major articles that comprehensively argue some point. The small- and medium-size outputs are called a “paper trail” or “digital trail”.
- When choosing the venue of outputs, emphasize the expected number of pageviews and how the contribution topically fits in. De-emphasize comfort and the building of a personal brand.
Existing writings on this and related subjects
- “My three guiding principles” by Vipul
- “Sponsored Wikipedia editing” by Vipul
- Vipul’s contract work repository on GitHub, which includes a comprehensive list of things he has paid to create
As of December 2016, I have been working with Vipul regularly since April 2016.
Some caveats to note about this page:
- This page has not been reviewed by Vipul, so I might be mischaracterizing parts of his approach.
- According to the approach, I have not yet gone through all of the steps. In other words, I am still midway in following all of the steps outlined here.
See Vipul’s “Debugging My Apparent 2016 Stagnation” § Significant shift to producing longer and much more thoroughly researched content.
The paper trail
Although this is not a requirement, in general the “paper trail” part of the research comes in several standard forms:
- Wikipedia articles about parts of the topic
- Wikipedia timelines of some aspect of the history of the topic
There seems to be a psychological aspect to the paper trail beyond providing value to others: it’s motivating to see that one’s writing is getting pageviews, that there is some progress being made on difficult questions, that one’s time has not been a complete waste, and so forth.
The paper trail can have other benefits that are not as important:
- It’s a way to put things out in public so others can critique your thinking.
- It provides a sort of detailed outline of your thinking.
Projects that use or have used this approach
To my knowledge and recollection, two projects use this approach:
- Some parts of Open Borders: The Case
- My own dive into global health
Changes in major output
In April 2017, Vipul published “Why I stopped quarterly reviews, and what replaces them” on his blog. In the post he describes how his thinking on the “major articles” part of the research process has changed:
My goal with both these kinds of posts is to, essentially, write them only once the ideas are all in my head and reasonably clear, so that it’s just a straight exercise of transcribing from my head to the computer. Given that I have no particular pressure to “publish”, I believe it does not make much sense to artificially try to put in custom, “hacky” effort to push out posts of either of the above kinds in a way that interrupts the flow of the larger projects I am working on.
To give an idea of what I used to do, and am now choosing against: there is this strategy where I would decide to work hard on pushing out a wrapper post about a topic I’ve been learning about, even if I didn’t feel like I was fully ready to write it, or knew all the relevant facts. Examples of the kinds of topics I am talking about: understanding trends in Wikipedia pageviews, or understanding the history of immigration enforcement in the United States since 1986. My past strategy was: I would just draft it, pull in a fact from here and a fact from here, revisit, redraft, rewrite, and soon get something that looked okay. And there was a time, early on, when I found that this kind of effort helped me focus and collate information that I would not otherwise have interest in systematically grasping. And I still respect this approach.
However, my current belief is that in this sort of situation, it’s better to just keep collating background information in accessible formats. such as continued work on the Wikipedia Views website, to make it easier and easier to look up Wikipedia view trends, or work on timeline of immigration enforcement in the United States. And then to start working on the wrapper post only when I feel I have enough to say that I can just sit down and say it.
Ways in which this approach differs from other approaches
- Unlike writing several papers or writing several blog posts on one’s blog, this approach has more variety in publication venue.