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Blogging research: attribution and ownership of ideas

I’m sitting on the fence in respect to deciding how to share things I write for my dissertation: while I plan to share draft chapters online anyway, I feel that it makes even more sense to share parts of it as blogposts (it’s easier to digest in smaller bites and there is no need to wait till I get chapter drafts readable as a whole). I guess I’ll just share and let you decide if you want it in pieces now or as a big chunks of text later 🙂

This piece is on attribution and ownership issues around ideas articulated in a weblog. I probably should add something on the blog comment ownership (see also comment with more links by Stephanie Booth – in fact she should be credited as someone who brought this stream of discussion to my attention).


“Aren’t you afraid to write about work in progress? What if someone takes your ideas and publishes them before you do?” There countless times I had to answer those questions when talking about blogging about my research. In those situations I usually talk about the benefits of the fast feedback, opportunities for others to learn about my work without waiting for months (or years) and having access to costly academic databases, and the fact that “my ideas are there with the time stamp on them”, so there is an evidence of my authorship.

However, the issue is more complex than that. Although, according to the unwritten rules of blogging, attributing those who influenced a weblog post is essential, it is not always easy. In the following comment to one of my blog posts Alex Halavais discusses the challenges of attribution:

This is, arguably, easy enough with words, but much harder when it comes to ideas. I came up with some thoughts that, I will assert, are my own. Someone noted that these followed closely some things you had written about in your blog. I am a regular reader of your blog, and I think it is likely that these entries–at the very least–prompted my thinking in a particular direction. This tendency to remember the ideas but forget their source–the “sleeper effect”–has been shown in communication research several times over the last 50 years.

You actually know about this, because someone else made the connection and hyperlinked it. But otherwise, I would have been abscounding with your ideas without due credit. As interersted as I am in encouraging hyperlinking as attribution, there has to be a limit.

I wonder whether a standing set of citations (your “Regular reads/dialogues”) constitutes a kind of “thought group”–an indication that your ideas are at least in some part attibutable to the people you communicate with every day?

While “a standing set of citations”, usually visible as a blogroll, is helpful to give credits to others when adding a link to a specific weblog post is not feasible (also since finding relevant post in someone else’s archive is complicated, especially when there is no phrase to search with, but only an idea that “there was something relevant”), this approach does not translate well to non-blogging contexts. For example, there is a challenge of attributing ideas from weblogs in an academic publication:

Academic publications on business blogs are scarce, while there are quite a lot of white papers, case-studies from commercial companies, business publications or general media stories on the topic. And, of course, there are lots of ideas worth citing across the blogosphere.

The last one is a difficult decision. For an academic getting into research on business blogging it wouldn’t be an issue: just run search through databases of scientific publications, work with the results and pretend that the rest doesn’t exist. For me, learning about interesting issues in the field from weblogs years before something along the same lines gets “properly” published, it is a challenge. I can not pretend that the body of knowledge in weblogs doesn’t exist, but, bounded by academic conventions, I can’t figure a good way to fit it into my publications.

Even more, even if I try to give an overview of what is there on the topic across weblogs, I can’t do it according to academic standards that aim for completeness and objectivity. I know that I shouldn’t even try to provide a complete and objective picture when giving an overview on whatever issue across weblogs.

It is not easy to find to whom and how to credit when one’s ideas are inspired by reading weblogs of others and conversations in a weblog network. When those ideas leave the blogosphere and take shape of something that is part of paid work (publications, presentations, instruments, methods), lack of attribution could result in a bitter feelings as sharing one’s ideas for a “collective good” is not the same as giving them to someone who might be competing for a publication space or consulting assignments in the “real world”.

In addition, while attributing words to their authors is easy with clear authorship of a weblog, this is not necessarily the case with the ownership of those words:

The question that came into my mind: what happens with your ideas that you posted to a weblog inside certain boundaries (e.g. corporate blog or course blog) after you leave these boundaries. Both Martin and Sebastian suggest that it should be your property and you have to be able to take it with you as your own learning resource. Ideally, I would say the same, but I don’t think that it’s going to happen easily in practice.

Companies and educational institutions are recognising that they could benefit from aggregating ideas produced by people (e.g. course assignments from previous courses could be reused in a new course). An individual knowledge worker, from other hand, wants to have access to his own thought, may be throughout his whole life. This is not interesting for a company (it’s competitive advantage!) and it should be ideal educational institution to take care of it (at the end no any educational institution is responsible to your own life-long learning).

In one paper knowledge workers were addressed as investors bringing their knowledge for corporate use. This is good metaphor, but unlike real investors knowledge workers can not take their investment back. Even worse, if you leave treads of your knowledge work in corporate context they are likely to belong to a company (often copyrighted), so they in fact risk loosing some of their investments.

In a long-term this could be a problem to weblogs adoption in a corporate context: I’m more motivated to write something down if I know that it stays with me and I can come back to it than if it’s locked in a corporate knowledge management system or e-learning system […].

This situation appears when blogging, which is not a paid activity for a blogger results in something directly relevant to an employment:

From notes of the Voxpolitics event on blogs and politics […] about Stephen Pollard, “first major journalist in the country to be running a weblog”:

And he’s not writing for free – people respond to his comments and inspire him to write pieces for which he gets paid.

This simple phrase gets the value of blogging for free – it inspires you to come up with other pieces (with more insight/analysis/depth/structure) to get paid for.
For me it would also draw a border for copyrights: I’d like to “own” my blog (to give it away under Creative Commons) even if it is related to my work, while my company owns more elaborate products (e.g. papers) that can be inspired by it (of course when a company pays me to work on these products :).

In fact I don’t like to get paid to blog, because I want the freedom of doing it and I want to own the content. I’m also addicted to blogging enough to think that I would not be happy if I couldn’t do it. And I have scary phrases in my contract to worry about these issues 🙁

In the research environment, using weblog in a process of creating an article makes the issue even more clouded, since transferring of copyrights to the academic publishers often requires that no part of the work has been published before.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Eric July 11, 2008, 05:51

    on the one hand, I can certainly see the issues you’ve describing becoming very problematic in terms of intellectual property and ownership of ideas. who owns ideas, and who’s able to use them, is a super sticky issue that I think current intellectual property laws don’t handle too well. I suspect part of the problem is that we try to treat ideas like property, like objects, when really they’re something much more ephemeral.

    however, I think the issues you’re describing here go beyond just blogging. for example, Einstein develops the idea of special relativity while Poincare and a slew of other folks come up with something similar. Einstein goes farther to develop general relativity. whose idea is that? is it Einstein’s, because only he came up with the general form of relativity? or does it partially belong to all the other mathematicians and physicists by whom Einstein was influenced? what about Leibniz and Newton with calculus? or people like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who directly collaborated and developed ideas together? questions about attribution of ideas when an individual has ideas because of being part of a collective exchange amongst a group of people definitely span beyond blogging. they’re certainly interesting questions, mind you, and it may be that blogging (and blog reading) bring them to the fore, but I don’t think they’re confined to blogs.

  • Colleen Carmean July 11, 2008, 23:44

    We stand on the shoulders of giants (Newton, then 1,000s of others with many meanings). And sometimes, one shoulder stands out and other times, its simply a part of the massive structure that makes for a foundation.
    I think often its the same with meaning. The Blogosphere spins ideas so fast and furious that singular attribution becomes difficult.

    In scholarly work, this compounds when you’re ‘encouraged’ NOT to use blogs in your citations. I just finished my dissertation, and …I did it anyway, as are many currently rejecting ‘scholarly’ standards. But I’m not sure how we can have it both ways, multiple ways, all ways. Share what you can, cite where you can, attribute freely. The whole is greater than the sum and ideas will always be ours regardless of how often they’re repeated, improved, distorted.

  • Lilia Efimova July 12, 2008, 11:43

    Eric, you are right, many things are also true for the world beyond blogging. I think the difference that blogging makes is about the speed, the connectedness and the visibility in the blogosphere… Especially the last one: stuff that’s used to be ephemeral part of a conversation is now pinpointed with permalinks. It’s definitely creates the issue of content ownership if you work for hire (an organisation wouldn’t have a way to grab what you say, but it’s much easier with what you write and share outside of your desktop)…

    Colleen, I share the attitude, but still have to deal with the environment 🙂

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