Thursday, March 20, 2008

Public ideas

A recent opinion column in The Chronicle of Philanthropy called for better protection for public policy ideas. Huh? This was a mind-bending piece for me, one which I finally realized struck me as the "solution" being - at best, a misapplication of resources - and, at worst, a bigger problem than that which it was proposed to solve.

But let me back up.
In a commentary on March 20, J.H. Snider wrote the piece, "The Quest to Protect Creative Policy Ideas." Here's where it starts:

"No one has figured out a way to legally protect public-policy innovation without doing more harm than good. The whole point of a public-policy idea is that it can be copied and used by anybody, not just those who can afford to pay for it."
I would have thought that the "whole point of a public policy idea" is to influence public policy.

The piece goes on to insist there is still a need to encourage original thinking instead of plagiarism of ideas. Here the argument relies on a market economy orthodoxy justification for patents and trademarks, that without them their is no incentive for the work. As the commentary notes:

"That people need incentives to engage in intellectual work is a bedrock assumption of modern economic thinking and was the reason America's founders included patent and copyright provisions in the Constitution. It is also why all major universities have strict prohibitions against plagiarism."

Now, I would have assumed that universities have rules against plagiarism because it is theft, not to offer incentives to originality. And the economic validity of and orthodox thinking about the relationship between patents/copyright to innovation and economic vitality are both being seriously reconsidered in an age of digital creativity and distribution. Which may not be why the writers of the Constitution put time limits on copyrights and trademarks, but it is certainly why some sectors of our economy are working hard to extend those time limits and others are fighting back to reduce them.

As I read this piece I kept wondering if there wasn't a basic mismatch of problem and solution. That said, I have no sense if plagiarism is a real problem in think tanks. I do think that the ease with which ideas are built on, shared, and spread (that is not to say, stolen) is actually a sign of the value of those ideas, not de facto signs of a faulty system. So when the following solution is proposed, I found myself scratching my head. Here's the solution:

The Internet now offers the promise of radically changing the incentives for plagiarism so that the social sanctions against plagiarism that work in the academic world can be transferred to the think-tank world.

The task now is to use similar methods to create a community of experts with the incentive to reward genuine public-policy innovation.

The specific method I propose is for foundations to finance an authoritative online clearinghouse of think-tank research with new tools to facilitate peer review....

The closest precedent for this proposal may be the a pilot project developed by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office with the help of New York Law School's Community Patent Review project.

So on one hand, I think "an authoritative clearinghouse" of public policy ideas is ideologically impossible (and undesirable). Maybe multiple clearinghouses? But wait a minute, isn't that what think tanks are?

So, for the sake of the argument lets assume that "think tanks" and politicians are stealing academic's ideas. Is plagiarism of public policy thinking a problem? I don't know, and hence the author may be on to something - maybe the original thinkers in academe are being "ripped off" by the more public, application-ready systems and purposes of think tanks. If we agree that it is a problem, it seems there should be citation analysis, professional ethics, and easy digital recourse for an idea's originator (is there such a thing?) to come forth and claim rightful originating ownership.

But here's where it gets tricky. Experiments that bring the energy and reach of communities of interest into play in coordinated ways with decision makers is one of the most exciting possibilities of online networks. So solutions that rely on "communities of experts" may be a good thing. These kinds of networks expand the mental and physical reach of central decision making bodies, they bring diversity of opinion to the table, and they can be inexpensive expansion of dedicated workers - but as research on open source production shows, they are not perfect, they are better at refining ideas or conducting routine tasks than for creating new things, and they have to be managed toward a goal.

For examples of success, look to the way TPM Media relied on readers around the country who first identified a pattern of attorneys general firings, and then returned to those communities to weed through 1000s of pages of Justice Department documents. Or NASA's "clickworkers" project that lets individual astronomy enthusiasts map planetary features. Or how Netflix reaches out to individual innovators to improve their algorithms for recommending movies.

As I read the piece I realized I was now thoroughly confused. I think there is a role for networks and communities of interest. Is this the right solution to the wrong problem? Or the wrong solution?

Which brought me back to my basic understanding about ideas - and the need for us all to think about this, in this age of knowledge economies, intellectual property, and digital media. Ideas only have value if they are used, riffed on, adopted, adapted, expanded, and argued about. Those who think them need those who use them. Some think tanks seem to be very good at sharing ideas with new audiences, in new ways, for new purposes - see the newest issue of DEMOCRACY: A JOURNAL OF IDEAS - as an example. Or the frequent invitations to New America Foundation events. Or the daily (!) newsletters from the Center for American Progress that fill my email inbox.

But are there academics behind these ideas, stuck in junior faculty positions, whose work is not getting recognized in this system? Again, I don't know. But if there is, that seems to me to be a problem for the system of academic rewards communications, peer-journal expectations, and publication-ocracy. The new systems of distribution should work to the advantage of good thinkers and writers, idea generators ought to be invigorated by the speed with which their thinking can "go viral," and the old citation systems ought to work in this digital world.

Ideas matter. Those who think them matter. Those who distribute them and those who use them matter. Bringing new technologies to bear on any parts of this seem to benefit all and shouldn't come at the expense of any piece of it.

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