To whom do ideas belong?

Thoughts on academic work and property

November 6, 2014

“Do our academic creations belong to us? Should we think of them as property?”

These are the questions asked by Davina Cooper, professor of law and political theory at the University of Kent, on her Social Politics and Stuff blog. “Amidst debates about how to cite properly, and circulating fears of ideas being stolen, do we risk losing touch with wider questions about how ideas emerge and develop, and the limits of provenance?”

Professor Cooper says that while the academic world is often a place of “tremendous sharing, generosity and trust”, it can also be one of “huge paranoia as competitive individuals scramble to protect ideas and work from the scavenging gaze of others”.

She recalls attending a humanities workshop and being struck by the fact that speakers talked about published work, rather than presenting current research. “Was it lack of time or lack of trust that made them reluctant to divulge new directions in their thinking,” she asks.

The fear that ideas will be used without acknowledgement by “academically ravenous others” could develop a culture in which scholars “keep our best thoughts private until their provenance has been secured through publication”.

Ideas are “not like items of clothing, furniture or food where one person’s appropriation diminishes what’s left for others”, she adds.

“Maybe, paradoxically, this is what makes intellectual theft so serious – that the taking is often invisible. Who knows if someone is claiming credit for your thoughts? You may find out years later or you may never know. But, then, what have you lost? Like others, I sometimes worry about such (imagined) takings.”

So why do academics worry that their ideas may have been stolen and repackaged? Professor Cooper asked academic friends and uncovered a range of anxieties. “One says she worries far more about unintentionally taking another’s ideas than the seemingly unlikely event, she claims, of someone taking hers. Another describes going overboard in his own good practice, fully and generously citing anything even remotely connected, while trying to remain as relaxed as possible at the prospect of his own ideas appearing unexpectedly in someone else’s text.”

But, the blog asks, although academics “largely take care when citing past, famous, dead scholars”, do they credit those whose words “are in process; not only those who have directly fed our thinking, but those who may go on to do so”?

“Some people deliberately acknowledge new social movements as the irreducibly collective place where ideas develop; others cite PhD projects or ongoing not necessarily published research”. While some refer to “personal” conversations or cite websites and blogs where related conversations are taking place, few “identify people starting to work with similar ideas”.

“I have never come across an article giving the name and contact details of someone interested in developing a conversation on a particular point,” Professor Cooper observes.

“If academic work is a collaborative form of public action, we can think about recognition differently – less oriented to questions of debt and of who ideas belong to, and more to the question of who we choose to recognise as sharing and contributing to our intellectual worlds.”

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Reader's comments (1)

My work in the 1970s belonged to the Polytechnic. My name on it but not mine. It could be used by any member of staff and it was.

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