Swarthmore Faculty Ask "Who Owns an Idea?"

Who owns an idea? And when does an idea become part of our collective knowledge?

These were just some of the questions asked at the faculty roundtable, "Who Owns an Idea?" on a Tuesday afternoon in Bond Hall. 

Sponsored by the Swarthmore Writing Associates and moderated by Rachel Crane '13, the faculty discussion featured notable professors and administrators from across the disciplines, including President Rebecca Chopp, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Diane Anderson, Professor of Astronomy Eric Jensen, Professor of Anthropology Maya Nadkarni, and Professor of Computer Science Ameet Soni. 

Each faculty member prepared a brief lecture from their own perspective on the central question, followed by an informal discussion and Q&A. While many topics considered ethical or philosophical definitions of ideas and idea ownership, the panelists also noted applications of these questions in academia and the professional world. 

President Chopp discussed Swarthmore traditions and how Quaker teachings and values can inform idea ownership and even issues of intellectual property.

She said that each student "is expected to bring his or her own voice to the discussion," and used the Quaker phrase, "mind the light" to explain how one is continually "searching for the partial truth in one's conscience."

Representing the social sciences, Professor Nadkarni said that concepts of power and historical contexts are central to the question of "Who owns an idea?". Nadkarni acknowledged that ideas are "historically located and culturally contingent," and applied this concept to her studies of how indigenous groups protect their knowledge and traditions. She then rephrased the central question and asked the audience, "What qualifies an idea? What defines collective knowledge or common sense?"

"One angle is treating the very idea of idea ownership as ethnographic investigation," she said.

Professor Jensen and Professor Soni gave their take on the question, offering interpretations of what constitutes a scientific idea in world of physical science and applied computer science.

Jensen said that a scientific idea is "a fact or supposition about the way the world might be...[that is] falsifiable."

Soni discussed the challenges facing innovators in technology today. He spoke about issues of patent laws in computer science, which protect technologies that quickly become obsolete, stifling innovation.

On a similar note, Dean Anderson told a story about her grandfather, whose cinderblock company went bankrupt after a costly patent law infringement - Anderson's first experience with the nebulous public domain and its consequences. 

The forum also inspired insightful conversation among faculty and students in attendance. One Writing Associate (WA), Danielle Fitzgerald '15, explained how WAs are typically challenged to help students reach original ideas during conferences in the Writing Center. 

"Part of originality is being able to put ideas in conversation with each other," she said. "How do you, as a student, contribute something to the world, knowing how much is out there?"

Dean Anderson expressed similar concerns for the students she teaches in introductory education courses. "The worst crime in our world is that of plagiarism," she said, to the agreement of the panelists. One of her primary challenges as an educator is encouraging students to understand how to connect their ideas to "the discussion that we're joining."

To Anderson, citations and footnotes work by "honoring scholars" and "leaving a trail of breadcrumbs" that connect the ideas of experts with the ideas of the students themselves.

Truly unique ideas must also acknowledge that "[writing] is part of the discussion that we're joining," she said, "this puts a face on who owns an idea."