I am happy to report that our paper describing the measurement of casual contacts within an American high school is finally out in the early edition of PNAS. Stanford’s great social science reporter, Adam Gorlick, has written a very nice overview of our paper for the Stanford Report (also here in the LA Times and here on Medical News Today). The lead author, and general force of nature behind this paper, is Marcel Salathé, who until recently was a post-doc here at Stanford in Marc Feldman‘s lab. This summer, Marcel moved to the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State, a truly remarkable place and now all the better for having Marcel. From the Penn State end, there is a nice video describing our results as well as well as a brief note on Marcel’s blog. This paper has not been picked up quite like our paper on plague dynamics this summer, probably because measuring casual contacts in an American high school generally does not involve carnivorous mice.
With generous NSF funding, we were able to buy a lot of wireless sensor motes — enough to outfit every student, teacher, and staff member at a largish American high school so that we could record all of their close contacts in a single, typical day. By “close contact,” we mean any more-or-less face-to-face interaction within a radius of three meters. As Marcel was putting together this project, we were (once again) exceptionally lucky to find ourselves at Stanford along with one of the world authorities on wireless sensor technology, Phil Levis, of Stanford’s Computer Science department. Phil and his students, Maria and Jung Woo Lee, made this work come together in ways that I can’t even begin to fathom. This actually leads me to a brief diversion to reflect on the nature of collaboration. As with our plague paper or SIV mortality paper, this paper is one where collaboration between very different types of researchers (viz., Biologists, Computer Scientists, Anthropologists) is absolutely fundamental to the success of the work. In coming up for tenure — and generally living in an anthropology department — the question of what I might call the partible paternity of papers (PPP) comes up fairly regularly. “I see you have a paper with five co-authors; I guess that means you contributed 17% to this paper, no?” Well, no, actually. I call this the “additive fallacy of collaboration.” When a paper is truly collaborative, then the contributions of the paper are not mutually exclusive from each other and so do not simply sum. To use a familiar phrase, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Our current paper is an example of such a truly collaborative project. Without the contributions of all the collaborators, it’s not that the paper would be 17% less complete; it probably wouldn’t exist. I can’t speak particularly fluently to what Phil, Maria, and Jung Woo did other than by saying, “wow” (thus our collaboration), but I can say that we couldn’t have done it without them.