“What’s in it for Me?”; or, Collaboration is not an End in Itself

In April I had the pleasure of speaking at Case Western Reserve University. I was invited by Roger Zender at the Freedman Center for Digital Scholarship to speak in their 2013 Colloquium, which was devoted to the subject of “Exploring Collaboration in Digital Scholarship.” The talk gave me an opportunity to discuss the work we have been doing at Emory’s Digital Scholarship Commons. Collaboration has in many ways been our bread and butter since the Mellon grant under which we operate has been focused on integrating a digital humanities center into the fabric of the Library. Our DiSC projects have drawn not only on talents of Emory’s faculty and the technological staff within the Library, but also the librarians themselves. Libraries present digital humanists with the opportunity to think more clearly about important issues such as preservation, copyright, and metadata.

When I was asked several weeks before the presentation for a title, I riffed on a title that my colleague Stewart Varner and I had previously used, “The Tragicomedy of the Commons: Digital Scholarship In and Around the Library.” This title played not only on the concept of the tragedy of the commons but also on the last initial in DiSC’ s acronym. In many ways, DiSC was set up as a solution to the inevitable depletion of resources that happens when people act self-interestedly. Since there hadn’t been a “front door” for digital scholarship at Emory, people had to go about finding their own ways to do digital work it inevitably ends up being unsustainable for all sorts of reasons. My presentation, which you can watch below, starts off talking about how DiSC was proposed as a way to solve this particular tragedy.

But it turns out that there are more barriers to collaboration on digital scholarship than simply having one place to go to get started. Instead of the too-crowded and depleted Commons, what we’ve found is that sometimes people don’t want to make use of the Commons. In other words, they don’t see the value of playing nice with others or collaborating and when they are asked to do so, their response is “What’s in it for me?”

As obnoxious as that question seems up front, I’ve found over the last several years that it’s actually central in digital scholarship. It’s not so much that people who ask this question are self-centered; rather, it’s a reflection of a rational mindset. If I can’t tell you how collaborating on a research project will benefit you, there’s really no reason for you to work with me. Indeed, “What’s in it for me?” points to something so obvious that we often forget it: collaboration is not an end in itself.

If you want to work with faculty, you need to know what could benefit them. This likely means helping them advance a particular research agenda or teach a class better. Graduate students have different needs that can be motivational: experience in a field or a methodology; experience getting an innovative project off the ground; or simple, lovely, filthy lucre. Librarians, developers, libraries—all of them have different motivations for why they might want to work together with you on a project. And you need to answer “What’s in it for me?” for every single group and then keep it foregrounded as you continue to work. 

That, in brief, was the argument of my presentation. Along the way, I shared a lot of anecdotes of our work in DiSC: some about Networking Belfast, which we’re going to be showing off at DH 2013 and quite a bit on how Views of Rome got off the ground. If you’re feeling miffed that you missed those gory details, well, you can watch it now.

And in case you want a better view of all those pretty pictures, here are the slides.

Speaking of collaboration, I was pleased to share the podium with, among others, Lisa Spiro and Amanda French, two people with whom I would collaborate on just about anything. In attending the colloquium, I learned a lot about other projects that have been happening at Case Western, as well as other schools around the country. And perhaps best for me, it presented the opportunity to think at a high level about what we’ve been doing at DiSC for the last 3 years and how we can do better in the future. A big thanks again to Roger Zender and all of CWRU for the invitation.

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