17th February 2012: Academic Entrepreneurs & Intellectual Property

The Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeven recently started an important debate about academic blogging in the Australian community of international relations (IR) academics. It raises issues about communicating IR and national security knowledge to a broader audience. Roggeven’s post attracted responses from Professor Nick Bisley (La Trobe University), Dr. Nicholas Farrelly (Australian National University), and myself. In an overview, Roggeven also mentioned the role of intellectual property in either fencing off or facilitating the dissemination of academic research. A response to several points that these authors raise:


1. The academic entrepreneur may be an empowering self-image. Benjamin Cohen suggests in International Political Economy: An Intellectual History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008) that those who conceptualised IPE in the 1970s were intellectual entrepreneurs. Lisa Stampnitzky‘s influential 2008 PhD on counter-terrorism studies (PDF) juxtaposes the efforts of core academics, think-tank pundits and journalists as idea entrepreneurs. Richard Slaughter, Sohail Inayatullah, and others played similar roles in the formation of academic futures studies and strategic foresight. At its extreme are former academics like David E. Shaw and Jim Simons who left academia to fund ultra-secretive quantitative hedge funds. The mid-ground is held by academics like Clayton Christensen, Andrew Lo and Robert Shiller who separate their basic research from commercially-oriented applied research and institutional vehicles.


2. Universities and the higher education sector face disruptive innovations. This point came up in a Twitter exchange I had with Ken Wark. Canadian academic David Robinson emphasised the death of universities in New Matilda. Nick Bisley mentions several factors: aging demographics, small numbers, avoidance of “semi-digested thought bubbles”, time, and research incentives which emphasise peer reviewed journal articles over other contributions. I see all of these factors on a daily basis as a research administrator who teaching staff confide in. The Golden Age for professors that Robinson yearns for does not exist for the mid-level or early career academic who is on a casual or short-term contract. I see people trapped in poorly working administrative systems and broken processes that a Six Sigma consultant would reengineer.  Today’s undergraduate students have grown up in a world where the corporate ideals are firms like Apple and Google, whereas many universities are closer to a Yes Minister public service. In this environment, academic blogging is embraced by a minority — usually digital media academics — who see it and social media platforms as a creative tool for self-liberation.


3. Open publishing can enhance peer review processes. Nicholas Farrelly and co-author Andrew Walker extol the power of public blogging to improve the quality of academic research and to create feedback loops with different audiences. Blogging can do so, under specific conditions. Peer review depends on the field, its norms, the specific academic journal, the editorial panel, and the developmental awareness of the reviewers. Unfortunately, the one-way nature of blind peer review in the Australian Research Council competitive grants process and in many journals can lead reviewers to write nasty, brutish, short feedback. This dynamic often disappears when the reviewers’ identities are known to all parties or where the authors have a rejoinder process to clarify the feedback. Blog publishing platforms are perfect for this — but research incentives, metrics and journals prevent the public circulation of drafts for comment outside a conference, seminar, or peer group. An academic with a personal webpage in 1998 had more freedom than an academic does today: publishers have serious restrictions on public dissemination that didn’t exist a decade ago. Institutional repositories are a positive development.


4. Bloggers often have to fight to do academic blogging. In 2003-07, I was a senior researcher at Swinburne University in the Smart Internet Technology CRC. Its brief was to explore the internet’s possibilities – but this didn’t extend to research management or to how it published its own research. The work I did had to navigate institutional capture and commercial embargoes. At the same time, at night I edited the US-based alternative news website Disinformation: we daily published stories and an email newsletter, and I got immediate feedback from readers. “We own you,” was the CRC’s response. Towards the end of my CRC contract, I convinced the CRC to let me write a daily, public blog about relevant news items, trends and developments. It lasted about six weeks before I left: I wrote more timely and public information than the CRC had published of my research in the previous year. Bisley’s “semi-digested thought bubbles” can have more relevance in a climate of time-based competition. Blogging — like regular writing — is not about scarcity and can help you to self-reflect and to write more productively. It’s closer to being a like a good DVD extra or director’s commentary than a finished motion picture film: it can give insight into the creative process and inspire dialogue with others. Apart from writing a PhD, I already have enough journal article ideas for the next four years.


5. Academics need to know — but often don’t — about intellectual property. Sam Roggeven raises the role of intellectual property (IP). In reality, most academics face a ‘stacked deck’ about IP. Teaching staff face complex workload models that are calculated retrospectively, to gain research time. International publishers usually demand that the IP be assigned to them for academics’ journal articles (unless they advocate open publishing).  The articles are needed for competitive grants and for convincing promotions committees about your research track record. Getting research incentive money for published articles depends on knowing how the institutional system works, on your Faculty’s policy, and whether or not you have a full-time academic contract. Some academics try to play the system: ancillary income via consulting and speakers bureaus; publishing in obscure conferences; or going to academic conferences that are really junkets. Research administrators can spot these strategies from looking at the data. Many academics have no idea about how to translate their research into an entrepreneurial venture. This frustrates the IP specialists, lawyers, and research administrators that I know. Areas that have a more laissez-faire approach to IP — like digital media — are more likely to embrace academic blogging. Despite these challenges, it’s possible to still blog about your initial ideas and the writing process, and to craft the insights for a good academic journal. A blog also gives you the visibility for academic citations and helps to build the international research networks needed to advance your career.