We hear so much about interdisciplinary research, about multidisciplinary studies, the importance of crossing disciplines and of collaboration.
Does it ever make you stop and wonder: WHY?
There has been lots of discussion of both the benefits and the career disadvantages of interdisciplinary research. These have always been themes of interest to piirus.ac.uk and our sibling service jobs.ac.uk, and I wanted to review some of the blogposts we’ve already had on the theme of interdisciplinary research.
Guest blogger Álvaro López-Franco wrote about his international and interdisciplinary research that lies between history and media studies. Typically, interdisciplinary research is where one researcher’s work is embedded in the traditions of more than one discipline.
Another guest blogger, Kate Maxwell wrote a mini-series for us on cross-disciplinary research in Norway. In her first post she defined cross-disciplinary research thus:
If interdisciplinary collaboration usually combines disciplines that are separate but not too far removed from each other, here I use the term ‘cross-disciplinary’ to indicate that the collaboration crosses faculty divides that are usually heavily – if often inadvertently – guarded.
I did some reading about these terms a number of years ago now, and I remember drawing lots of overlapping circles to illustrate the levels of integration that each term meant. For me, cross-disciplinary is the higher term for all research involving more than one discipline; however, the term “interdisciplinary” is sometimes used in this way. Meanwhile, I understand that interdisciplinary research involves real integration across the disciplines involved. In contrast, multi-disciplinary research for me is about drawing on more than one discipline without involving integration of methods or findings. And I know that there’s transdisciplinary research too, which I understand to be half-way to forming a new discipline. But that’s just me! There are different definitions in use, so if you’re getting involved in any such research, ask:
What level of integration are your colleagues, funder or institution aiming for?
Meanwhile, in a guest blogpost on interprofessional education, Professor Scott Reeves gave us a definition of another kind of “inter”:
interprofessional education and interprofessional practice are types of interventions that involve groups of different health care providers learning and working together to improve problems with the delivery of safe patient care such as communication failures, medication errors, fragmented coordination.
And this made me think of researchers’ collaborations with professionals who are not academics: such as working with museum curators, described by Jack Gann or, indeed, working with librarians, which I know from my own professional background.
For the purposes of this blogpost, any and all kinds of interdisciplinary and collaborative research are important. At piirus.ac.uk, we bring together different kinds of expertise. This is either in one person with roots in more than one discipline, or through a research group of individuals from different disciplines and professions. Why might we want to do this?
Career risks but also opportunities
Back in 2015, my former colleague Rhiannon Taylor wrote about “Interdisciplinarity: a lecture with Professor Brian Cox and Dr Michael Scott” and it appears to have been an engaging evening. There was some discussion of opportunities for building knowledge:
Brian Cox gave examples where scientists provide data that explains the ‘what’ and the ‘when’ (for example human migration) and other disciplines can investigate the causes.
Career risks seem to have also been a big theme. And this was especially the case for “interdisciplinary” researchers whose work is embedded in more than one discipline. Risks discussed include:
- It takes time to move into a new field: this creates a “gap” in your publishing history
- Interdisciplinary grants are reportedly less successful, and this is bad news for early career researchers who need every possible grant
- Perceptions are that “interdisciplinary” means lesser quality because the research is not in-depth in one field
- Academics risk treading on others’ toes when they cross to an unfamiliar discipline
And the talk acknowledged that connecting with others from outside your discipline doesn’t only have to be about interdisciplinarity. Rhiannon went on to report that:
Teaching, making TV programmes and talking to a wider public about your research both makes you understand the subject better and can kick off genuinely interdisciplinary ideas in your head as you have to think about how your research connects to other people.
So it seems that intellectual curiosity and inspiration as well as the ability to develop communication skills are possible reasons to follow an interdisciplinary or open and collaborative path.
Sharing expertise and resources
In some ways, working together to solve a problem is a no-brainer: we can all inspire each other. We all bring different expertise to bear, and indeed many hands can “make light work”, as the saying goes. Our former correspondent, Ryan Anderson blogged about “How to be an academic rockstar: 5 amazing benefits of collaboration”.
There’s another old saying too, that “too many cooks spoil the broth”. It can get tricky to keep lots of people from different disciplines on the same track and all productively engaged with each other. Researchers’ perceptions of each others’ disciplines, but also funders’ perceptions of the ways researchers can work together, can be influential. Kate Maxwell’s series highlights perceptions of the usefulness of humanities research, some of which can seem like barriers. Kate also blogged some encouraging observations on Norway’s cross-disciplinary research:
There is a great deal of respect, and fruitful research that is scientifically and societally relevant.
…if there is on thing that my observations have shown, it is that the success of collaboration depends on the individuals involved.
Choose your collaborators well and you may build connections that are not only good for one project but are inspiring and useful for your whole career.
This is not only about inspiration, but it’s also about research rigour and potentially wide applicability. Over on the jobs.ac.uk site there’s a blogpost from Dr Catherine Armstrong which discusses challenges but also highlights the advantage of sharing resources:
An example of a successful interdisciplinary project is the collaboration of an artist and three biomedical scientists from the University of Glasgow to digitally photograph birds. Researchers from both disciplines then used the photos, the artist to create an installation, the scientists to create a forensic record.
An interview with Dr Charlotte Mathieson in one of our oldest blogposts highlighted advantages and pitfalls of collaboration:
It can be difficult to hone it down and get a good argument. Especially in the Arts and Humanities, where so much of our writing is about argument. It can take time to build up a good working relationship as well, so taking the time to get a really effective partnership is worthwhile.
A solution decided, and agreed, on by experts from very different disciplines must be very robust. And, if researchers can communicate across the disciplines, then there’s a good chance of communication and application beyond academia too. Interdisciplinary researchers can communicate to all the professions and areas of life that relate to all the disciplines involved. It is no short cut, but crossing disciplines can help in the identification of pathways to real world impact. And by building connections in more than one discipline, early career researchers can potentially broaden their job prospects.
Very early on in the history of piirus.ac.uk (OK, back in 2015!), we ran a survey and asked researchers about the challenges around making international and interdisciplinary connections, and presenting yourself online. Our founder, Fiona Colligan blogged headline findings from that survey, and it led to the creation of one of our most popular resources, the free “Digital Identity Health Check for Academics” which acknowledges concerns about social media and provides ten simple, practical tips.
We know that building a solid identity is important. Interdisciplinary researchers and collaborations must work particularly hard to create and present a consistent identity. More, this identity must be balanced across the disciplines involved and appeal to all the disciplines. Even in the digital world, it isn’t easy to be “inter”! And when it comes to scholarly communication it seems even harder. We hear that it can be hard to find top quality academic journals that will accept interdisciplinary papers. Further, interdisciplinary researchers and research projects don’t always have a natural home for their work. Here, interdisciplinary researchers risk losing the academic prestige and recognition for their work that comes with publication.
Even when research is successfully published, those who measure research (like the UK’s REF, as explored on jobs.ac.uk blogs or university administrators) often like to categorise research for purposes of normalising and/or benchmarking and this may lead to disadvantages for research which belongs neither wholly to one discipline nor another. The Times Higher have an interesting table of disciplinary citation rate averages, but this is to stray into another interest area of mine, and it is just another argument as to why metrics must not be used in isolation.
If researchers can take on such challenges even occasionally, the rewards for the researcher themselves, for human knowledge and society can be great. I think that’s why we hear so much about it: it has such potential. Let’s re-cap on all those words that I highlighted in bold in this post. The advantages to be found in crossing disciplines are:
- Follow intellectual curiosity
- Find inspiration
- Develop communication skills
- Achieve research rigour
- Share resources
- Identify pathways to real world impact
- Make useful career connections
To answer the title’s question about how “inter” do you go: you need to weigh the risks and the opportunities. This can only be done from your perspective, your goals and ideals. Interdisciplinary research seems like a very ambitious choice, but also a rewarding one. Perhaps you’ve already chosen how “inter” you want to be in your research. If you have, we’d love to hear from you. You can leave comments below, tweet at us or even guest blog for us.
Image credit: CC0, Pixabay