Disciplinary identities and other barriers to advancing interdisciplinary working

By Professor Linda Waldman, Institute of Development Studies, Professor Joanne Sharp, University of Glasgow, and Professor James Wood, University of Cambridge.

The following blog was first published on the PLoS ONE blog ‘EveryONE’.

Interdisciplinary research is becoming increasingly commonplace. In recent years, climate change, ecosystem sustainability, planetary boundaries and zoonotic disease outbreaks have in particular forced the scientific community to pay attention to the complex and multifaceted relations between the environment, disease regulation, human health and social interactions. The increased pressure to publish, the advantages of collaboration, new technologies and new funding programmes have also been significant drivers of interdisciplinarity.

This trend is likely to intensify given that, as funders have increasingly come to recognise, the world’s most pressing concerns – including climate change, ecosystem sustainability, planetary boundaries and zoonotic disease outbreaks – have to be tackled from an interdisciplinary perspective because of their complex, inter-connected and rapidly-changing nature. The creation of new funding bodies, such as the , acknowledges these complex and multi-faceted relations between the environment, animals, humans, social interactions and health. These funders are expecting to see more cutting-edge research resulting in jointly-authored, interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed journal publications.

This though is no easy ask. As a group of UK-based zoonoses researchers, we have discussed the challenges of interdisciplinary academic publishing, identifying a number of thorny, key issues which we believe warrants attention if interdisciplinarity is to advance.

Academic identity

One key issue is disciplinary and academic identity. Different disciplines tend to promote particular perceptions of what constitutes a successful scholar within a particular discipline. Scholars absorb and adopt these identities early on in their careers as researchers.

Social science PhD students, often responsible for identifying their projects and raising their own funding, seldom see themselves as part of a research team, even though they may work with others, e.g. research assistants and translators. They commonly produce single-author outputs, despite substantial intellectual input from supervisors and others.

This self-perception continues as careers advance and the social science norm is that of a lone researcher. In some social sciences, single authorship is important for career advancement.

In contrast, natural science PhD students’ entry into the field is mediated by a team of interconnected researchers (including supervisors) working on the same projects and topics. They are typically trained to regard co-authorship as the norm.

Authorship attribution

This difference reflects markedly different systems for determining authorship attribution. In qualitative social science, the ‘work’ of producing an academic paper involves reviewing literature, conceptualising and interpreting data, and integrating literature and theory, as well as project design and field research. Authorship though tends to be limited to those actually writing the paper.

When northern researchers undertake work in the global South, the collation of raw material (usually interviews undertaken by or with skilled southern field assistants), is frequently not considered sufficient criteria for authorship.

In contrast, natural sciences maintain a broader conceptualisation of the ‘work’ of academic publication, including grant writing, conceptualising a project, overseeing field assistants, maintaining a laboratory, doing experiments, managing a team, producing results and writing a paper.

The consequence of these implicit, seldom-articulated yet differing ways of working and perceptions of work is that natural scientists may not be adequately recognised in funding acknowledgements and publication credits when outputs are orientated to social science.

Similarly, social scientists may not expect to be included in publications on the basis of their broader project involvement.

Writing processes

There are also differences in the writing process. Natural science papers tend to be predictable. The production of results from experimentation or observation is the critical aspect and the writing process articulates them.

In contrast, qualitative social science field results tend to exist in the form of raw data and meanings tend to emerge from the discussion. It is the act of writing that constructs arguments from data.

Further, natural science authorship norms place the person who has completed most of the experimental, observational or analytical work as the first author, and the most prestigious place – the last author – is reserved for the project lead.

In social science, despite an increasing awareness of the significance of first author as a result of interdisciplinary social science topics such as development studies and the increasing emphasis on research metrics, the norm is an alphabetical listing. When authorship attribution reflects relative inputs, the first author is understood to have invested the most input, either through work completed or by seniority.

New layers of complexity and mystery are added by the fact that all these criteria, for both natural and social sciences, are ideal, and as such are often ignored as academics make choices that reflect strategic decisions about partnerships, publishing needs, interpersonal relationships and institutional hierarchies.

Power relations

Zoonotic diseases, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are shaped by unprecedented global connectivity and rapid social and environmental change. Enhancing and facilitating interdisciplinarity requires acknowledgement of different norms and of the power relations embedded in authorship.

Just as zoonotic disease cannot be viewed as a problem for only natural scientists, it also necessitates inputs from academics and researchers living in both the Global North and the Global South, who are likely to be more closely connected to disease outbreaks in southern contexts. It therefore requires opening up discussions about what publications matter for each researcher and consideration of how issues of seniority, scientific discipline and North/South relations are addressed.

In particular, research undertaken by field assistants working for Northern researchers in the Global South – such as the collation of raw material through interviews – is frequently not considered sufficient criteria for authorship, thereby maintaining an illusion of a lone, often Northern-based researcher and privileging Northern academics.

As research publication and authorship necessarily becomes more interdisciplinary, it needs to overcome a range of challenges, including authorship of peer-reviewed publications influencing academic careers and research funding. In so doing, we encourage new ways of understanding authorship which build greater potential for collaboration between natural and social scientists, make attribution criteria explicit, while also taking cognisance of power relations and vested interests.

As such, these understandings should aspire to recognise contributions by junior members of consortia, highlight the collective nature of research and acknowledge southern partners as vital to the research and publication endeavour.

This work was funded by the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Department for International Development, the Economic & Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory, under the Zoonoses and Emerging Livestock Systems (ZELS) programme.

Picture credit: Natural prism (cropped) by Mrs eNil via flickr

Image: Natural prism by Mrs eNil