Intellectual collaboration

By | May 21, 2013

evFor some 25 years on and off, starting in the early 70’s when I was a beginning grad student and he already an academic legend, I had the great privilege of working with the late Everett Rogers, author of Diffusion of Innovations and many other seminal books and articles. During our collaboration, we created and exchanged a great number of ideas – some fairly fully formed, others casual and offhand, others perhaps mere suggestions. Some of those ideas took root in things that he wrote, some in things I wrote, others in things that we composed and published jointly. In many cases, it would be hard to say who contributed what to a developing concept, since there would be extensive iteration of ideas before they ever approached the written page.  Sometimes we passed information back and forth in hard copy; at other time, we exchanged floppy disks or shared files. Trying to locate all the sources of our collaborative work would be a monumental challenge.

On all the work that we explicitly developed together, Ev was meticulous about sharing the credits. When I saw the first article I ever participated in published as “Rogers and Eveland”, I was exhilarated, even if I had written more than 2/3 of it; the fact was that if his name were not on it, it would never have seen the light of day. He was happy to cede top billing in the case of some research reports that I’d done most of the work on; however, most of our work did bill him first, since it was his intellectual contribution that made it publishable. And that was just fine with me. The situation with unpublished ideas was a little murkier. My dissertation was based on a model that I created out of our research together, explaining some aspects of innovation implementation in process terms; Ev co-chaired my committee. When he published the third edition of Diffusion of Innovation, he included some of this material, crediting my contribution. By the fourth edition, however, he included the material, somewhat altered, without explicit attribution. Again, this was fine with me; by then, the concepts were essentially in the public domain anyway. Over the period of our collaboration, I dare say that the flow of ideas was sometimes in his direction, sometimes in mine. Trying to tease out and document each step of that process would have been both tedious and unnecessary.

Ev had a great stable of excellent students over the years; indeed, training and inspiring new scholars was one of his greatest intellectual accomplishments. I’m sure that many of them would confirm this back-and-forth exchange of ideas with him as a highlight of their careers. And I’m sure that they would also confirm that his sharing of intellectual credit required no formal tracking system to be both honest and generous. So while I’m sure that formal collaboration tools such as those being developed in many places are very useful in generating and documenting intellectual collaborations, the great bulk of collaboration will continue to take place undocumented except in the heads and good will of the participants. Some of it will doubtless sour and be remembered differently; however, I’d suspect that even if there were formal tracking of the contributions of the parties, it wouldn’t help much. The biggest reward of intellectual collaboration will continue to be, as it has always been, the simple joy of sharing our ideas with others who appreciate them. And no documentation process will ever capture that dimension of our lives.