Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy

cca300Last week, the Lear Center hosted an exhilarating event about changing the nature of the academy and how it does research. Sponsored by Randy Hall, the Vice President of Research at USC, the event brought together a breathtaking array of scholars from across the disciplinary spectrum – many of whom are experimenting with new technologies and developing new methods of interdisciplinary collaborative research.

Why did the Lear Center get involved in this initiative? We saw it as a natural continuation of a long-running project of ours called Creativity, Commerce & Culture. Since 2001, we’ve been hosting events and publishing research on how new technologies and ownership regimes impact the work of creative people. We’ve looked at the music, TV, film and publishing industries, who’ve had a terrible time adjusting to a new digital environment where audiences can easily copy, circulate and remix copyright-protected content without permission. We’ve also done some ground-breaking research on the fashion industry, which has managed to thrive despite the fact that fashion designs cannot be copyright protected.

We came to realize that a lot of the issues that define the commercial creative industries are also at play within the academy. In some ways, the university is not that different from a music label, a film studio, or a publishing house: all of them represent a heterogeneous cohort of creative people who are generating valuable intellectual property that needs to be appropriately marketed, distributed, monetized, and preserved.

And like the commercial creative industries, the academy is having a difficult time adjusting to new technologies and the increased pace of innovation. Digital technology has provided amazing new tools that have impacted every aspect of the creative process, upending business models, distribution networks, and the nature of the creative work itself. If the academy hopes to keep up, it must find ways to innovate. Right now, the publication cycles in the academy are painfully slow, and though many faculty are tempted to share their work online, and solicit input from their peers and the general public, many academic publications (and tenure committees) would prefer that scholars stick to the tried and true peer review channels.

That’s one reason we were so happy to have Katherine Rowe, the editor of Shakespeare Quarterly, at the conference. Rowe and her colleagues bravely opened up the peer-review process for their last issue, and we wanted to know what worked and what didn’t.

We were also lucky to have Neil Buckholtz, an NIH Alzheimer’s researcher who put together an innovative public/private partnership that has produced vast datasets for scholars around the world to pore over, analyze, and produce their own original research.

We also snagged Arden Bement, who just stepped down as Director of the National Science Foundation this year. With a six billion dollar budget, the NSF has a profound impact on what scholars study and how they do it. Bement assured us that networked science – buttressed by state of the art cyberinfrastructure and radically distributed research teams – was the future of scientific research.

To people outside the academy, “collaborative research” may not sound revolutionary. But inside the ivory tower, many scholars are putting their livelihood and their reputations at risk if they veer away from publishing peer-reviewed, single-author papers and books that fit neatly in their disciplinary niche. Securing tenure is dependent upon convincing a panel of scholars that you are an original thinker who will have a profound impact in your area of expertise. But it can be very difficult to explain what your individual contribution is to a vast, internationally distributed ongoing, evolving experimental research project that generates (for instance) datasets and opportunities for other scholars to advance their work more quickly. If we want the academy to continue to contribute to the improvement of human lives all around the world, it’s essential that we discover how to best take advantage of the amazing new technologies that are quickly transforming our world and to reward the courageous scholars who are willing to break the old molds.

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