Another View of Ghost Towns, Process and Product

My colleague Prof. Cindy Prescott generously offered this response to the my conversations with Troy Larson. 

Bill’s previous blog post and Troy’s response raise interesting questions about intellectual property and the relationship between academic and public history. Many researchers in the hard sciences worry constantly about being “scooped.” Historians (and people in the humanities in general) tend to worry far less about this, since we tend to be pursuing lines of inquiry that interest each of us individually, rather than all working toward common goals or on common problems (say, curing cancer). And the nature of historical research and publishing also means that the timeline is much slower — which is perhaps made possible by the fact that we’re less likely to be trying to beat each other to publish the same material.

Academic historians have traditionally staked a claim to their chosen research topics at conferences, which (sometimes) have a shorter lead time than do historical journals, let alone coveted monographs. But in my experience, historians generally value conference presentations for the opportunity that they represent to receive feedback from knowledgeable people who can help us to hone our arguments, more so than as an opportunity to stake a claim to a particular topic. Thus you are willing to share your database, because you believe that other trained scholars will bring their own perspectives to bear on that data and produce interesting arguments that enhance, challenge, or perhaps refute your findings. As an academic historian, you are free to welcome such challenges and refutations, precisely because you have already received the substantial benefit of a Ph.D. diploma and a tenure-track job on the basis of your interpretation of the data.

Likewise, I published a book based on my dissertation that will never make me a single cent, and I’m OK with that, because I didn’t write it to make money. I wrote it so that I could get and keep a job at a university. And I would gladly share the database on which I based part of that book — should it be useful to anyone else without me having to go back and bring order to my crazy notes — because I’d welcome different interpretations of that data. The worst that would happen to me is that someone might publish something that refutes my book and discourages people from buying the remaining stock of my book before it gets remaindered. Either way, I’m not getting any cash out of the deal, and it wouldn’t take away my tenure.

Blogs and other internet materials raise these questions precisely because they welcome engagement by the general public, who do not operate within the terms of academic scholarship. As I understand it, Troy Larson has been willing to share his images and ideas online not only because he’s generous, but also because he seeks to benefit from sharing them with an audience in much the same way that an academic traditionally has benefitted from presenting at academic conferences: (1) he gains an audience for an intended publication, and (2) he gains information and perspectives from others that will strengthen that publication. An academic historian wants very similar things, but ultimately seeks different long-term benefits. Academics, then, can afford to be more generous with data than can public scholars. As faculty at a public university, we’re essentially being paid to do so.

I’m intrigued by your comparison to borrowing from someone else’s class syllabus. For all that we insist on intellectual property rights to our teaching, I think that most academics will willingly share the reading lists for their classes. Indeed, we tend to borrow from one another’s reading lists, seeking the tried-and-true rather than to be cutting edge in terms of reading assignments. I suspect most college instructors would be somewhat more hesitant to share their lectures or active learning assignments, but even these we are more willing to share freely. We tend to think of teaching as a more collaborative experience — perhaps because no one is going to publish my lesson plans or give me tenure on the basis of those lesson plans. But perhaps more importantly, it’s because even someone who had my lecture notes would still have to stand up and deliver that lecture — and it would sound and look different from what I deliver in class.

I think that intellectual property concerns get raised far more often — and appropriately so — when it comes to the realm of online teaching. While a grad student could certainly deliver a lecture drawn from my lecture notes in their own course, that feels different to me than having someone else launch an online course using lectures that I had typed/videotaped/tegrity-ed. Because then they’re not just delivering a lecture based on my content (which in turn is based on information drawn from mainstream textbooks and materials). But my personal objection would come less from their cribbing of my ideas (which I had quite appropriately gathered from published sources in the first place, and in which I generally am not trying to make an original argument), and more from the sense that they are cheating and stealing my work. In other words, my objection comes not from them borrowing my content, but from them using my hard work without me benefitting. Why this is OK when sharing lesson plans but not OK when copying lectures, I’m not entirely sure – especially considering that I generally dislike lecturing, and am far more invested in, and am more proud of, my active learning assignments. I suspect that it is because I tend to view sharing ideas/plans for active learning assignments as part of the larger project of intellectual exchange that is one of my favorite parts of a career in academia (and that sharing tends to strengthen my other favorite part of an academic career: having an impact on student learners). But to copy a lecture wholesale feels like stealing or outsourcing my work (something that might allow the university to replace me and my tenure line with a cheaper teaching assistant or adjunct), rather than engaging in an intellectual exchange. I suspect that non-academic researchers like Troy Larson, who are depending on their information-gathering to make a living, would see someone else using their database more like I would look at someone else delivering my pre-recorded lecture content – particularly if the people using the data are supported by a larger structure such as a public university. While I am fearful of having my material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who would teach for cheaper (a grad student or adjunct instructor), Troy Larson appears fearful of having his material “stolen” (used extensively) by someone who might be far better paid, but whose paycheck is primarily supported by their other services to a large research university.

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