What Are the Costs of (Not) Sharing?

At an American Studies Association conference a few years ago, I was making a pitch for open access in the humanities when an older man stood up and gave one of those questions/sermons charged with disagreement. The gist of his commentary: If scholars give their work away, don’t they devalue it? I argued that openly available work could have more value because it is more visible and could be more easily built upon by others, but he continued to insist that there should be a price tag attached to academic work.  This encounter demonstrated to me that not everyone embraces academic sharing, and that giving can come with costs (perhaps especially if my interlocutor happens to be on your tenure committee).

Of course, we give away some of our most valuable goods: our love, our time, our attention, our opinions. But in doing so, we gain: love, purpose, learning, and insights. As Thomas Jefferson noted, sharing ideas resembles a flame passed from one candle to another, so that “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine.” But Jefferson also acknowledged that people might need “the embarrassment of an exclusive patent” so that they can personally profit from sharing and thus be encouraged to do so.  Not sharing also has a cost—in invisibility, in standing apart from the community and the common good. And that gets to the heart of the matter: what do you give up and gain by sharing?

I would argue that sharing energizes and shapes a community, whether we share ideas, the burden, or credit. What attracts me to the digital humanities community is its ethic of sharing, whether by adopting open source software and Creative Commons licenses or exchanging ideas via Twitter and other social media. Digital humanists understand the power of open networks to connect people, as well as the need for access to data, tools and a community in order to do their work. But of course sharing is not some new-fangled notion preached by techies; scholarship depends on and aims at the free exchange of ideas.

Although I have been marking up texts and building digital collections since 1997, I feel like I didn’t really become a full member of the digital humanities community until I started to blog in 2007.  Blogging motivated me to pursue questions that interested me and gave me visibility and fast feedback. As a result of my blog, I received invitations to speak and contribute to collections like this one.  As I noted in 2009, making your work openly available "is good—and good for you."

In starting up the Digital Research Tools (DiRT) wiki (with the help of a group of editors), I thought that it only made sense to share. As I was collecting information about a range of tools that support digital scholarship, I wondered why not increase its value by giving others access and encouraging them to offer their own knowledge? I was struck by how readily people like Dan Cohen and Alan Liu got in touch to share their tool collections. Sharing paid off, as DiRT has grown beyond what I could have imagined and is nurtured by a great advisory board.

Yet I realize that as an alt-academic, someone not confined by tenure requirements, it’s easier for me to share. Although sharing is at the heart of what we do as scholars—creating, transmitting and preserving knowledge—academic culture and legal restrictions can stand in its way. Many humanists—and I include myself in this group—resist sharing until their ideas are perfectly polished, forgetting that the point of scholarly discourse is to contribute to an ongoing conversation, or to start a new one. By sharing, you get much faster feedback on your ideas. In an early blog post, I wondered at what point I should share. Was it OK to throw out half-baked ideas into the blogosphere? In a blog comment, Jean-Claude Bradley, one of the leaders of open notebook science, gave me great advice: just be clear about how provisional your ideas are. (I never would have received this advice if I hadn’t shared my uncertainties publicly.) Another obstacle to sharing is the perverse academic reward system, which seems to judge work not as much for its contribution or impact as on the prestige of the venue in which it is published—often one that requires readers or their sponsoring institutions to pay for access. Legal barriers also limit sharing. There’s a reason that much work in digital humanities focuses on pre-1923 material: copyright. You can’t share what others claim ownership of—nor can you fully make use of it, even if much of this material is part of a common cultural heritage. Of course, there are also ethical reasons that circumscribe sharing, particularly privacy. I typically don’t want to share information if doing so could jeopardize someone else. Despite these barriers and cautions, though, I think academics should share in order to participate in the scholarly community, do social good, and increase the impact of their work. The payoffs of sharing usually outweigh potential costs, and the value of scholarship shines through when it is shared.

Image on front page by Niklas Wikström and available on Flickr.



I appreciate the advice you share from Bradley to “be clear about how provisional your ideas are”; it’s freeing, isn’t it? So many times we have these, as you say, “half-baked” things, and our own self-consciousness makes us wait to put it out there so we don’t seem uninformed or out of the conversation. This also seems to allow you to somewhat plant your flag in a given line of inquiry early on and access resources that might have gone unknown if you’d remained silent.

I also want to say that I’m finding so many valuable resources in this month’s responses. The DiRT project looks fantastic, and I’m looking forward to digging through (see what I did there?) all the ideas and resources contained therein. Along with the link to Erin Copple’s Teaching Media Facebook group in her post and Tara McPherson’s shout-out to the Alliance for Networking Digital Culture in her post on “Sharing the Archive,” I feel like these are all examples of how  project itself is demonstrative of the potential upside of sharing, and I’m so thankful to have access to it.

Yes, the advice to make clear how tentative your ideas was freeing.  People talk about the fear of being scooped as being as a major reason why academics don't share their stuff openly, but I suspect that the fear of looking stupid or being proven wrong also limits sharing.

I should emphasize that it took a collaborative effort to develop DiRT, and that Quinn Dombrowski deserves special recognition for serving as the project manager and developer of Bamboo DiRT. Happy digging!

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.