Working Paper Conferences

Frank Pasquale posted a comment on one presentation at the recently-concluded Intellectual Property Scholars Conference.  I just got back from IPSC and wanted to record a couple of observations while they’re fresh.  More below the jump.

IPSC has grown.  What was originally conceived as a relatively intimate setting for presentations by newcomers and critiques by senior IP scholars is now an intellectual property free-for-all.  I mean that mostly in a good way.  The conference is very large; it includes presentations by scholars from all across the seniority spectrum; and dinner-and-break conversations are generally very high quality.  If you’ve been in IP teaching for five years or less, I’d say that IPSC is close to a must-attend conference. 

The size and significance come with costs.  Some presentations feature mostly finished work, or at least mostly finished drafts.  But some “papers” aren’t really papers at all, however, but proposals for papers.  Some ideas are raw, and some are half-baked.  Panels are multi-tracked, and while steps are always taken to discourage people from voting with their feet in the middle of a session, people do.

The growth in the size of the conference partly reflects the tremendous expansion in the number of scholars teaching intellectual property law over the last decade.  It also reflects the fact that IP suffers from relatively little of the sclerotic hierarchy that characterizes some disciplines.  If you’re a junior scholar and want to present your work, IP offers at least two fora:  IPSC and WIPIP (the Works in Progress Intellectual Property) conference in the Fall. 

Diversity in paper and presentation quality also follows from a reluctance by the organizers to discipline eligibility too harshly.  I organized WIPIP myself last year, and I know well the conflicts that are built into managing a conference of this sort.  Presenters submit and are selected on the basis of abstracts; they are rarely pulled from the program if a paper is not eventually forthcoming.  To preserve the spirit of the conference, the organizers largely have to rely on norms of professionalism that suffuse the discipline. 

Or that don’t.  Law professors who don’t have terminal degrees don’t get trained in the ethos of scholarship the way that graduate students are supposed to, so learning an ethos is sometimes a hit-or-miss proposition.  In IP, with the growth in the field over the last several years, there are a couple of places (in addition to not submitting a paper when an abstract has promised one) where the misses are pretty obvious. 

One is presenting raw and half-baked ideas at big public conferences like this one.  Presenting a work-in-progess doesn’t necessarily mean presenting an unfinished work.  There are times and places for sharing very-early-stage work:  With small numbers of trusted friends and colleagues.  At brown-bag lunches.  With an Associate Dean for Faculty Development, or a mentor, if there is one.  At roundtables organized for that purpose.   At a big public conference, however, the paper may not be in its final form, but the form that is delivered should be final.  That type of conference isn’t always a reputation maker, but it can be a reputation breaker.  And the audience will give better and more thoughtful feedback to a presentation that has been evidently thought through than it can to one whose gaps are obvious.

Two is not being aware of the historical context of the work.  By far the biggest flaw in presentations and papers by junior IP scholars (and sometimes by more senior IP scholars) was and is their evident ignorance of earlier work.  And not just or even work published within the last year or last five years; I’m thinking of the fact that a lot of foundational work published ten years ago or earlier remains significant today.  IP doesn’t have a sclerotic hierarchy, but it does have senior people who are still active scholars today, and their earlier work still matters.  And, of course, there is quite a lot of relevant work from decades ago and scholars no longer with us.

This lack of awareness isn’t uniform.  There are many newer IP scholars who demonstrate excellent sensitivity to scholarly context.  How to develop this more broadly is an important and difficult disciplinary challenge.  Law schools don’t automatically teach it.  Law review editors are unlikely to require it.  The echo chamber of law review content doesn’t necesssarily produce it.  Reviews and tenure letters could supply some of it, but the norms currently associated with those letters mean that they do so only rarely.  Conference organizers could implement more rigorous reviews of proposals, but at obvious costs in terms of access to presentation opportunities.  Works-in-progress and junior scholars conferences could be structured to reward it.  More experienced scholars in the field today could volunteer to provide it, both publicly and in one-on-one ways.  Some do, I know.  But much is left to be figured out on one’s own, and that leaves important gaps.

I’m open to suggestions.

6 thoughts on “Working Paper Conferences

  1. Re: historical context — I hear you, and this has been bothering me for a while. The problem is that there’s an awful lot of earlier work out there, particularly in the last 10 years or so. How much is “foundational”? In grad school, you would do some survey courses and get a “50 great books” list. As you worked on your dissertation, your adviser would tell you that you have to read this book and that one. You could also count on the fact that others in your field read pretty much the same books, so that everyone has a common base of knowledge. But legal studies are largely unguided. It’s a bit like trying to find the center nodes by looking at all the nodes and keeping track of how many connections each one has. I.e. not very efficient. What’s needed is something like the Prawfsblawg Research Canons, but averaging a lot more input.

  2. Having just presented without delivering a paper, I hope I didn’t fall into the half baked category! I think there are a couple of challenges for the junior scholar at a conference like IPSC:

    1. The general advice is not to go public with a draft until all holes are filled. While most holes might get filled by conference time, the goal (for me anyway) is to make sure I have filled all holes. Granted, I should catch the big ones, but that’s not enough to go public according to many I have heard from.

    2. The IPSC paper deadline is in mid-July. If the paper is the product of summer writing, that can be too early to get a good draft going. I thought about my paper a lot and had a fair amount written, but it just wasn’t the quality I would want to share as of mid-July (or even now).

    Given that I am going to WIPIP, my own goal was to get some feedback on my (hopefully mostly baked) idea, and then work to get a complete draft done in time for WIPIP.

    Perhaps my concerns above are different than the two items you point out (being too raw and not reviewing the literature), but for someone just starting out it may be difficult to tell the difference, especially where there are not that many opportunities for junior scholars to present.

  3. Thanks for the thoughts. On the issue of when to present: I also presented at IPSC, and I described the submitted writing as a rough abstract. Is that too risky?

    I figured: I’ve done a lot of research, formulated and written the contours of a paper, thought about many (undoubtedly not all) criticisms and where I’m likely to come out on the questions that I’ve raised. Given its current state, I thought that this would be a great time to solicit comments and reactions. Maybe I’m onto something where there’s “no there there?” Someone may have read something that I missed but should know about, or is writing or thinking about writing in a related area, etc. So they may not be the finer points to discuss, but valuable feedback at this stage nonetheless.

    I echo Michael Risch’s comments above and add that it’s wonderful that the IP prof community is so supportive and encourages junior scholars to present their works. Thanks!

  4. Some very sobering reminders. A few thoughts (numbered merely to provide “handles” for anyone who wants to criticize a particular point):

    1) I think they provide wireless to help people through the half-baked presentations.

    2) On the other hand, wireless and instant internet communications also help solve some of the issues you raise. If you think someone’s work should be informed by another piece that’s out there, you can email them. I’ll often try to compose some email to someone while they’re talking to give them some impressions of their piece.

    3) But the ignoring of prior work is a very serious problem, particularly as it tends to reinforce the “Matthew Effect” Merton commented on. People feel pressure to deliver up a “big theory” piece before tenure, and the new law review length guidelines make that harder to do. So junior scholars have to economize on whom they cite, and often it’s going to be to the most recent work by the hottest names. There is little to no reward for digging beneath that work and perhaps making the point that the similar ideas were explored years before. . . . or carefully tracing the evolution of proposals over time, and clearly noting how one’s work adds to that “chain novel” of research.

    4) But that problem could be ameliorated if sites like SSRN permitted commenting. Note that Google news is giving sources and others a “right of reply” on its site.

    5) Ultimately (and here I will remind everyone of your article on open access, Mike), the solution seems to be the creation of webpages on which scholars (particularly juniors like myself) can post their work and then have others put comments beneath to remind us of what’s already been done. Of course, ideally, we’d have found that already, but sometimes it is hard to keep on top of everything. I think I printed out at least 800 sources for my article on information overload; I probably cited 200 of them, and the other 600 could easily have been included–but for the space limits of law reviews.

    6) In defense of the half-baked: I think that we should provide a venue for people who, say, in the middle of a project realize it’s a bit of a dead-end, and move in a different direction. It’s kind of like the Journal of Negative Results:

    I think my piece at the conference was along those lines–I realized it was a bit too complex a project in educational policy for a legal scholar to complete, but it laid the foundation for a more appropriate project on the relationship between IP and administrative law.

  5. Frank,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and props to you for citing Merton on the Matthew Effect. For those looking for citations, here are two:
    Merton, Robert K. (1968). The Matthew Effect in Science. Science, vol. 159, no. 3810, 56-63.
    Merton, Robert K. (1988). The Matthew Effect in Science, II: Cumulative advantage and the symbolism of intellectual property. ISIS, vol. 79, 606-623.

  6. Some of this discussion reminds me of a related problem that some folks and I noted in Berlin. At what stage can one post a draft on SSRN? In other words, there was the sense that working drafts could be posted, not cited, and receive constructive feedback. Now, it appears that people feel that they cannot use it that way and instead use SSRN as a self-publishing tool. It is unclear how accurate this view is, but it fit several people’s perceptions. In addition, Mike’s point about where to present early ideas poses a different issue: how does a junior scholar get invited to present material to those who know the field? Certainly some on one’s faculty might help but the same concerns about faculty not appreciating the state of the work and about lingering impressions for those who make tenure decisions is in play. In other words, internal reputation matters as well.

    On a more general note, the advantage of presenting to people who know the field and can point one in a good direction or towards articles that may not come onto one’s radar has been a great boon to junior scholars’ to whom I have spoken. The openness of these conferences also provides a launching point for those who simply would not be invited to any smaller venue, because they are unknown.

    These points do not undercut Mike’s point that one must be quite prepared for large, public conferences, but I recall some papers by senior people that were explicitly offered as “Here is a quick, high-level view of the idea. Now I’d like to take the rest of time to kick it around.” The people knew the subject well and demonstrated their mastery of the area while being open to comments about holes in the specific matter. Maybe one has to have that level of knowledge to take that approach. Still, the speakers had people saying “Read X or Y,” and it seems that framing the issue is what distinguished the presentation. Put differently, Mike may have identified that IPSC may not be that clear about the nature of the papers if there is one.

    Frank’s points about citing all that one reads but for space is hard to understand against Mike’s point. Is the issue not having read or is it having read but ignored? Mike’s point seems to address a lack of knowledge. Frank’s point seems to go to showing what one had read but not citing or discussing work that is not really on point. The idea that one could cite more with more space is clear enough, but is it necessary to cite all that one has read? If so, should articles move to including a bibliography? (I would not mind the inclusion, as it would guide me to books I may have encountered.)

    The idea of more open spaces for commentary might work, but the early reputation issue will persist. Another possibility is that some group would offer lists for young scholars to read but given the breadth of fields such lists might have to be tailored to each area. In general one great thing about the IP community is that people such as Mike, Frank, and honestly almost every person I have met, are willing to talk about ideas.

    Perhaps one way to approach new areas is to read those who one finds, but be humble. Realize that many others will have been through the ideas one considers though from different angles. So after reading someone’s work, call them to discuss their ideas about which you are writing. From there one might be able to ask for further reading about one’s own ideas. This view is not to support a lack of looking. Rather it is to suggest that a well-prepared reader should be able to go to a senior scholar after having read a fair amount and say (after discussing the ideas a bit) “I run into a wall on this issue. Do you have suggestions about other ways to think about the issue and/or where to look further?” A similar track is to go to these conferences, not present, but engage with those in one’s area. For example, at one conference, Dan Burk and Doris Long were generous and fantastic as they listened to my ideas and gave strong, constructive criticism coupled with some reading to do. I could roll a list of such encounters because IP has that culture (to those not mentioned, I hope I have offered my thanks at several spots and please know my gratitude runs deep).

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