Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Having a Microsoft address

At least several times a week I need to contact other linguists and/or native speakers of the languages I'm looking at with linguistic questions. This is nothing new. Every linguist looking at real data does this at every level: college, grad school, in academia or in industry. The new part for me is that I'm now contacting people with a Microsoft address.

When I would contact people in grad school from my Penn address, more often than not I got quick and helpful responses: Here's the corpus! I'm sending a manuscript of my as yet unpublished paper! Here is my analysis of your data! Sure, the system isn't perfect: there are all kinds of violations of academic integrity. However, there's this basic assumption that ideas exist independent of their originators and that they're meant to be freely exchanged and available in the public space. People put their published papers and manuscripts alike on their web pages so that colleagues everywhere can read them regardless of their access to libraries and journals. And so when you write people with questions about their work, more often than not people are willing to respond as helpfully as they can.

Now I'm not using my Penn account to ask my linguistic questions because I'm asking those questions as part of my work at Microsoft. The situation is a little more complicated because my address is an a-dash, which means that I'm a contractor. So now when I write to people with questions, maybe I get helpful responses and maybe I don't, but every response that I get includes some kind of question: Are you working for Microsoft? Is this work for Microsoft? Is this for a Microsoft project? Sometimes the comments are positive -- it's great to see that Microsoft is paying attention to smaller lesser-studied languages -- and sometimes they're negative, indicated more by the lack of reply to follow up questions than by anything else. Most of the time they appear to be neutral. But there's always a reaction.

I'm really sensitive to how I approach external linguists and native speakers in a case like this. When you're the grad student earning $15,000 a year and being asked for your work for free so that you can contribute to a project that you might eventually have the option of paying for, it's easy to feel less than fully generous. And so there's this anti-industry bias in general and an anti-Microsoft bias in particular (the casualty of success), however much that might or might not make sense in any given case. In some sense people determined to hold on to their negative biases no matter what are deliberately shooting themselves in the foot: they miss the chance to gain great visibility for their work and to contribute to the development of tools that might eventually really assist them in their own projects. And you can't complain that the products available to you suck if you've turned down the chance to give input into how they're shaped. But the fact is that until you've been the grad student earning $15,000 a year, you don't know what it's like being the grad student earning $15,000 a year. I can see where they're coming from. Right now I feel like I have a foot in both worlds.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

this might seem simplistic, but can you just send emails to these people with your Penn address instead, or is that not allowed?? and have you brought this problem up with your higher-ups?

2:07 AM  
Blogger Kieran Snyder said...

I think that would be unethical. I don't want to misrepresent who I work for.

And yeah, this is a known problem.

8:06 AM  

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