Interdisciplinarity: Working Together Takes Work      

Cell asked its 40 Under 40 what they thought was the biggest problem facing young scientists today. Todd P. Coleman, associate professor at UCSD stated:
A big challenge, but one that I enjoy, is that the important—many of the most societally relevant—problems can no longer be just solved with physics like for the transistor or biology like the for Polio vaccine.  It is increasingly the case that we need to bring different groups of people together from very different disciplines to partner and tackle important problems. It is like the analogy that we can no longer act like golf or tennis players—we have to now think in terms of baseball or football. A baseball team will not be successful if it is full of shortstops.

Academia Today Favors Specialization

Despite the calls for more interdisciplinary work from researchers and funding organizations (see NSF and NIH) there are significant hurdles towards working together. A recent finding shows that interdisciplinary work has a consistently lower chance of funding Bromham 2016. Moreover, some researchers still advocate that hyper-specialization is needed for a deep understanding of a field and that interdisciplinary studies results in a shallow understanding of things.

The Argument Breadth vs Depth

Areas of research are constantly emerging, merging, and transforming. Some issues--such as societal, environmental, economic, and philosophical ones--are complex and multifaceted. Thus, they cannot be understood from the lens of a single field of study. W James Jacob argues specialization lacks “in addressing larger and more complex issues... [Interdisciplinary] approaches take a much broader view of the entire landscape, first by surveying the forest and afterwards drawing upon various tree experts depending on the needs, contexts and circumstances” Jacob 2015.
The graph below measures the level of disciplinarity of fields of study.
Data from V. Larivière & C. R. Sugimoto (Pers. Comm.) Find the original here.
Interdisciplinary research is increasing.  The fraction of paper references toother disciplines is increasing in both the natural and the social sciences while the fraction referencing the same discipline shows a slight decline Noorden 2015.
It is not surprising then, that the fraction of paper references of other disciplines is increasing in both the natural and the social sciences while the fraction referencing the same discipline shows a slight decline. Noorden 2015
Graph from Noorden 2015.  Data from: V. Larivière & Y. Gingras in Beyond Bibliometrics (eds B. Cronin & C. R. Sugimoto) 187–200 (MIT Press, 2014)
The benefits of interdisciplinary research is not immediately applicable.  Work within the first 3 years have less citations than specialized work but over longer timescales (13+ years) they gain more references Noorden 2015.  

Graph from Noorden 2015.  Source: J. Wang et al. PLoS ONE 10, e0127298 (2015)

Easier Said Than Done

Because trying to gain expertise and familiarity with the literature in multiple subject areas can be a difficult and discouraging, researchers leading interdisciplinary projects may experience a lack of support and guidance. Interdisciplinary researchers run the risk of ending up being a "jack of all trads, and an expert of none."  
Authorea CEO and cofounder, Alberto Pepe, spent twelve years doing research (a few years at CERN doing data science, an information science PhD at UCLA, and a 3-year Astrophysics Postdoc at Harvard). “During my Ph.D. and Postdoc I did not even apply to a single tenure-track job. Why? My research background is very (maybe, way too) interdisciplinary... Who the hell is going to hire me? At the end of the day, to get tenured you need to be able to teach core classes in one discipline.” Read more about Alberto’s personal journey here.

What to do

There is no quick and easy solution. As always, this will need a paradigm shift and team effort. It’s not enough to just pressure those at the top to provide more for interdisciplinary projects. From the bottom up, we need to encourage interdisciplinary collaboration.
In The Guardian’s Interdisciplinary research: why it's seen as a risky route, PhD student Sarah Byrne wrote, “The wider academic structures — the way journal papers and grant applications are reviewed, definitions of research quality and impact — need to be addressed if anything is really going to change. And early career academics need the appropriate support and career paths in place, if their interdisciplinary training is going to translate into successful integrated academic careers.”
Yamuna Krishnan, Professor at University of Chicago’s Department of Chemistry, said, “one of the biggest challenges they will face will be preparing themselves for a life of interdisciplinary science and to step outside the comfort zones of their core capabilities. The greatest enabler of this, I have found, is the early cure of “syntax error”: the difference in language (read: jargon) between physics, chemistry, and biology.” (Cell)

For more, we love the "Ways to promote interdisciplinary research" (Brown 2015) below.

  • Manage funding from an interdisciplinary perspective while reinforcing research impact. Discipline-based agencies must form joint funding programmes.
  • Panels should include a balance of experts from the social and biophysical sciences, with a strong appreciation of other disciplines. It is also useful to include end-users of the research (for example, practioners and policymakers).
  • Calls for funding should request balance between disciplines and prefer teams that have a proven record of collaboration. Publication in applicants' own disciplines should be essential; publishing in other disciplines is desirable.
  • Introduce key performance indicators that promote T-shaped researchers. For example, include qualitative measures of impact on policy and practice, as well as conventional academic indices.
  • Identify institutional research strengths that show potential for interdisciplinary collaboration and incentivize it through seed grants.
  • Reduce transaction costs: for example, through summer schools to develop constructive dialogue skills. Provide platforms — seminars, research workshops, debating competitions — to discuss challenges in cross-disciplinary research and offer insights into the norms and cultures of other disciplines. Co-locate researchers from different disciplines who work on the same grand challenges.
  • Invest in interdisciplinary PhD cohorts, co-supervised by academics from diverse departments or faculties.
  • Invest in and create high-quality interdisciplinary journals, managed by editorial teams or boards of T-shaped researchers.
  • Run special issues in high-impact, single-discipline journals that focus on interdisciplinary research.
  • Peer reviewers should assess work using their disciplinary expertise, while being tasked to be open to innovations across disciplines.
  • Build stamina, patience and self-awareness to manage the long journey of establishing a productive interdisciplinary team.
  • Put your best ideas forward even if they are unfinished, and be open to alternative perspectives from other disciplines, policymakers, industry practitioners and community members.
  • Prioritize depth early on, and embrace breadth by building relationships with those from other fields and practices.

Remember, what is considered interdisciplinary today might be considered disciplinary tomorrow. Are you working on an interdisciplinary project? Comment here and give us something to be excited about!  We want to share your work with our online community. Please also tell us your personal stories and if you have any other ideas on how to promote interdisciplinarity in your field and country.


  1. Lindell Bromham, Russell Dinnage, Xia Hua. Interdisciplinary research has consistently lower funding success. Nature 534, 684–687 Springer Nature, 2016. Link

  2. W James Jacob. Interdisciplinary trends in higher education. Palgrave Commun. 1, 15001 Nature Publishing Group, 2015. Link

  3. Richard Van Noorden. Interdisciplinary research by the numbers. Nature 525, 306–307 Nature Publishing Group, 2015. Link

  4. Rebekah R. Brown, Ana Deletic, Tony H. F. Wong. Interdisciplinarity: How to catalyse collaboration. Nature 525, 315–317 Nature Publishing Group, 2015. Link

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