Reflections on Intellectual Commons

in Social Analysis

Marilyn Strathern, in her collection of essays, Commons and Borderlands (2004: 39–40), reflects on interdisciplinary research collaboration and its products in the contemporary British university setting. She points to two opposed pressures on such research. One, seeking “undivided outcomes,” comes from those engaged in interdisciplinary research who see “an object held in common, the joint product, multi-authored, of diverse efforts.” The other comes from those determined to attribute “ownership” as a matter of “undivided origins” to an individual “owner” of the object—its presumed creator—who can be uniquely identified and appropriately awarded, often with legal intellectual property rights in the form of patents or copyrights. While the perspective of researchers connected to the former impetus is one in which several researchers see themselves as bringing their complementary knowledges to bear in an “orientation to a joint project (‘problem solving’, etc.) [which] takes precedence” (ibid.: 48n4), that of the latter requires that they parse out origins to specify how “collaboration can be unpicked to identify the individual person, or the individual team, with whom the origin rests undivided” (ibid.: 40). Both pressures are, in the case of the British academy, very recent. Calls for interdisciplinary research have been articulated over the same period of the past two decades during which new property claims have been made—by universities, by ‘society’, and by for-profit corporations—on intellectual creations in the university milieu.