In a social environment, where we are constantly bombarded by one another’s thoughts, influences, advice, insults, guidance, creativity, etc. It’s often hard to tell what’s mine and what’s yours. As a process of human existence, we merge in our overall development as co-conspirators in a discursive social process. Yet we differentiate. We sort. We categorize. We determine social norms and ethical guidelines. We create boundaries, and determine practical rules in the best interest of the privileged and powerful as a part of habitual pattern, while also claiming we are part of a democratic whole. This is where we start to sort out the muddy contents of intellectual property, hierarchies of truth, even stretching far enough to reveal the landscape of subconscious, subjective rules governing knowledge (Foucault, 1972).
I think of this intermingling and separation often as I wade further into the academic world. In this field, we value and sort what it is that could push the envelope of humanity to consider something never considered in quite that way before. I find myself wondering in some what unreasonable extremes, “Who thought of this idea first? How did this idea evolve? Am I the only one thinking this certain nuanced thing for the first time? Who else has– Are the alive right now on the other side of the world? What if someone steals my thoughts? Have I ever thought anything original in my life?” As early career scholars, we hear horror stories of failed books, theft of files, discredited projects, broken partnerships. With this comes a growing pressure or race to publish and a growing mistrust of colleagues to keep the good ideas “secret”. We push ourselves to be amazing, to be utterly unique, and that isn’t necessarily the purpose we came in with. When I mentioned this sensation of scholarly pressure to a professor, she imparted a great wisdom I really appreciate- the objective isn’t to be mind-blowing, the idea is to be original.
In that regard, we tip-toe through an infinite collection of past prose. We barely scratch the surface of the myriad splintering thoughts available to us in the mammoth collection of (wy)mans’ thoughts over eons. And at times, it feels like we’ve been driven to be citation fanatics. I’m often frustrated to see my papers filled with so many citations that every fifth word is followed by ellipses. I may be quilting it all together in a different way, but I still recognize that I owe intellectual copyright to the ascended masters of major and minor thought.
Still I continue to ask myself, what then determines intellectual property? How do we set the line for individual copyright and what are the consequences when someone has breached that right? A colleague recently published an academic article using a personal metaphor I shared during an informal conversation about teaching. During that discussion, we also talked about steps toward publishing narrative stories from teaching experiences and they offered a book to be of use as stylistic model. When the article went to print, they mentioned how they had indirectly cited me. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean. To me, indirect means you didn’t cite me at all. How is that credible? If I helped spark a thought to frame your work, it might be more constructive that you return the gesture with a co-authorship or collaboration. Especially when the conversation this idea was drawn from was in regard to writing and publishing our stories.
In Eastern culture, there are many customs that employ the recognition of the ancestors or master-teacher before and after certain traditional practices. It’s a humbling ritual to say a prayer that’s been repeated by millions for thousands of years or to bow in recognition of the golden chain of insight that has led you to this place, as one link among many. I think situations involving blurred lines of intellectual copyright call for more assertive questioning. If you and a colleague have planned to work together or shared ideas at length, or you know someone has been trudging through an idea where you’ve taken a few hits of inspiration, don’t steal the spark completely. Show them your related work. Ask the difficult questions, “I know you’ve been working on something in proximity to my interest, is there anything in this manuscript that you think reflects your work? If so I’ll cite you.” or “I wanted to let you know I’m planning on doing something with such and such idea and wanted to be upfront about it so I could recognize your part in my process.” I’ve done this practice with an accountability partner and it’s helped to foster our professional trust and writing vulnerability immensely. Isn’t that the point? We aren’t living in isolation in a vacuum of our own thoughts. We are a product of complex ideas. Is it possible to claim our voice in the dance while also maintaining our integrity? What are ways that we can express as much respect for the published scholars shaping the discourse as for the concealed conversations and relationships feeding our work?
Foucault, M. (1972). Archeology of Knowledge . London: Routledge, 7, 78.
* COPYRIGHT: (c) 2016 Jennifer Dauphinais, All Rights Reserved, image: jcdauphinais, 2011