Altruistic Collaboration in Academia

I have a lot of writing on the docket for today, so I figured  a good way to get into the groove might be to blog a little bit first. Get those fingers warmed up, you know? So I’ll talk about the reason why I haven’t been as active on my blog as I had been hoping I would be. And no, it’s not for lack of ideas!

As I’m now an affiliated academic, a Master’s student in sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University specifically, I’ve encountered the concept of intellectual property in some pleasant and less pleasant ways. Personally, I like the free sharing of ideas and I’m happy to offer my input on projects as I’ve received so much help with my own projects here at State. It’s not a quid pro quo situation, either. For example, I have this project I started up and it garnered enthusiasm from two other academics in my department (one an ABD student and the other a professor) who immediately (and I mean immediately) generously offered to contribute their corpora and general expertise to my investigation. Simply because we share something in common: we want to know the answer to the questions being asked, academics as we are.

Stemming from their enthusiasm, they have aided me enormously along the way. It’s probably just as much because I’m a completely green sociophonetician as they truly are invested in my work. It’s an absolutely great feeling; this project, ambitious as it is, would not be possible without their contributions. And it’s cases like this where I can’t conceive of how learning and progress can be made without such altruistic collaborations between colleagues. Further, it inspires me to give what I can to those who can benefit from my skillset. For example, many of the students in my program haven’t had a background in advanced statistics whereas on account of my undergraduate major (psychology) I have such a background. I’m strongly motivated to give back what I can when I can.

On the other hand, there is also a guarded, more selfish sentiment present as well, where often the time it takes to help a green sociolinguist isn’t worth it. And I’m speaking generally of what I know about academics as a whole, not just of my department. Personally, I find that I learn just as much from my labmates as I do from my professors. And there seems to be this idea that what we create, how we do what we do, and essentially everything creative about our work is our property that needs protection. I understand it, to agree, but I don’t believe the stuff we’re working on for class projects is in huge danger of being scooped.

So on the one hand, there are enormous benefits to be gained from collaboration and we would be less knowledgeable about the world around us if we didn’t share our ideas and skills. And every field has produced its share of calls for greater interdisciplinary collaboration. On the other, what we create is our currency in academia–I feel this pressure even as I look forward to applying to PhD programs next year whenever I revise my gradually developing CV. How nice it would be to have a first-author publication! So it feels like we are at the same time justified in our desire to defend ownership of our “property.”

Coming back to what this means for my blog. I have been working on a number of projects grown from classes I’m taking in sociophonetics and variety in language. One is in my typical vein of measuring language attitudes; another focuses on ethnic discrimination and perceptual cues in vowel quality; the last is a fine-grained analysis using smoothing spline ANOVAs of two speech communities who show superficial alignment in BAT raising. So I have a lot of lovely things going on. And I would love to share bits and pieces on this blog, but I have not yet resolved how I feel about the competing forces of free sharing of ideas versus the concept of intellectual property. Additionally, I have to weigh the benefits of sharing with the general public of course and also consider my position as a young sociolinguist student.

Right now, I suppose my philosophy on the matter isn’t fully developed. It’s a lot to think about. Any thoughts? For the time being, I’m going to get back to finishing off two class papers and writing two abstracts for submission to conferences. Fingers crossed!

Megan L. Risdal


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