Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Corporate authorship

i I love my job, for a whoe bunch of different reasons: for example, it exists. (Piece of dark humor that summarizes a moment: What’s the hot new status symbol in Silicon Valley? A job.) One thing I always find a little disconcerting is the way things I’ll write in internal e-mails, or say in a meeting, will find their way into a research proposal, or one of our articles.

This isn’t an illegitimate appropriation of my work– I incorporate lots of other people’s ideas in my work, no doubt– but a reflection of how different the lines of authorship and attribution are in this world versus the academic one. We have a very collective style of writing here– sometimes we all work on a piece, sometimes sections are divvied up, and sometimes an article will get revised so substantially by so many different people that it tips from being heavily edited to co-authored. And my name gets on everything I contribute to, so I have no complaints on that front.

But there are research outfits that that deliberately obscure authorship, as via Moore’s Lore reports:

There is a “hot new” research outfit in England called Rethink Research. It’s headed by Peter White, formerly of Comptuerwire, and Caroline Gabriel, formerly of VNU….

Rethink has no author credits on its reports. It depends entirely on the brand to carry the day. It does this deliberately, to keep any writer from getting too much salary, and to keep successful ones from gaining the reputation needed to go out on their own.

But they don’t just shortchange the writers here. They shortchange the customers. I don’t know whether this report was done by qualified experts of a bunch of Googling Monkeys.

i I find the middle paragraph pretty chilling, especially given that I’ve been staying up extra late trying to finish my piece on actor-network theory and pervasive computing, which is part of a campaign to build what Tom Peters calls “the brand of me.” But it also raises a question: How much of what’s written has authors?

For most of us– certainly for academics and postacademics– authorship is a no-brainer. Of course things have authors, unless you want to deconstruct the notion of the “Author.” But think of all the texts we encounter in our daily lives that don’t have author credit: everything from street signs to forms to encyclopedia entries (the majority of which are unsigned). For all our attention to it, is authorship the exception rather than the rule?

[To the tune of Giovanni Da Palestrina, “Gloria,” from the album Missa Papae Marcelli, Missa Aeterna Christi Munera.]

8 Comments

  1. Does the small i represent some diminishing of self here, or are you just being overcome by the culture of web communication and its lack of formality (and consistency)?

  2. Oops. Right you are!

  3. It’s as if, oh, I don’t know, Rethink may actually be employing the marketing/advertising model of, “So what if you can write? I have a BRAND to promote…who are you again? What do you mean, a raise? Your name’s not on anything. In fact…”

    At least at Disney, where they co-opt all intellectual property, there’s a chance of getting one’s name in the credits.

  4. So how is credit tracked in the M-A space? Is the assumption that everyone on a project has contributed equally? Or are they just pure evil, and don’t worry about having in place the means for people to develop their own brands (what we used to call professional identities)?

  5. I should note for the record that Computerwire, where Mr. White previously worked, also avoided bylines.

    It is also common in Hong Kong for bylines to be eliminated.

  6. I have written articles, press releases, presentations, white papers, websites, brochures, employee manuals — virtually anything printed a company produces for marketing or communications. Never have I gotten credit by name. And that is perfectly OK in that setting. I am less sure that is appropriate in a research group, especially if they are offering prescriptions of some kind. I’d want some way to judge their credibility, and personal history of the creators is an important piece of that.

    On a side note, I am studying actor-network theory as applied to communications. I’d love to read your work on ANT – pervasive computing. I bet it has incredible implications for the theory and practice of communications.

  7. I wouldn’t say getting no credit is “perfectly OK,” as it in some cases makes building one’s portfolio equivalent to theft from the corporation. It is, however, the standard protocol. Only the talented and lucky few who grab big-budget ads can hope for personal recognition of any substantial sort. Naturally, it’s the extremely low wages, not the professional self-branding, that attract most to the M-A world. I’d hate for that to become the case in pretty much any industry driven by knowledge workers. It’s not generally conductive to excellence.

  8. Ah, yes. The pay’s bad, but the hours are long.

    The iront is that organizations seemed to get deadly serious about mass-producing content exactly when people started talking about how “content is king.” The implication that many writers took away was that authors would be kings; but what it really meant was that the control of content was important– and the best way to control it was to routinize it, and to strip writings of claims (like authorship) that would challenge an organization’s ownership.

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