Community: How do interdisciplinary communities and collaborations succeed?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

Community and collaboration are major aspects of interdisciplinary work. In an interdisciplinary team, the composition of its members’ disciplinary backgrounds determines both the types of question that can and will be addressed in a particular collaboration as well as the methodology used to answer such questions. It is important here to take into account that one’s interdisciplinary identity may be just as important as one’s disciplinary background in the creation of successful interdisciplinary teams. Simply gathering researchers from different fields does not guarantee that concepts and ideas will be adequately translated. Instead, identity and the personality characteristics relevant to interdisciplinarity (detailed in the previous section) may be more likely indications of interdisciplinary success. The present section underlines the importance of selecting team members based on their willingness to be vulnerable regarding (the limits of) their knowledge; their genuine interest in other fields can hardly be underestimated.

Finding shared unknowns

For interdisciplinary collaborations to properly emerge, there must be opportunities to delineate a potentially important question. Very few interdisciplinary projects begin with methodological assumptions or preconception; ideas and questions are more often shared informally during an initial stage, then elaborated upon and developed. Peter Sloot recalls a lunch that sparked a new interdisciplinary collaboration: ‘Let me give you an example of a success story. We held a lunch event with psychologists sitting next to economists, and mathematicians sitting next to ecologists. This initially led to some pretty weird communication. But then, the psychologist says that the big problem we have in psychology is trying to understand and measure the onset of depression. We know when it’s there, we know when it’s not there, but how do we measure and quantify that transition? At that moment the physicist jumps up. Of course, when we physicists think about transitions, we think about first- and second-order transitions, we think about phase diagrams. The ecologist then said that he had seen these transitions when studying lakes in the Netherlands, and that he had published a paper on such tipping points. Long story short, three days later we came up with a model to describe the signals that serve as an indicator depression, where depression is actually a tipping point in the state of individuals. The resulting paper has been published in Science.’

Jan Willem Duyvendak concurs with this notion that asking questions, and having the opportunity to do so, are essential for interdisciplinary work. Communicative openness is indispensable: ‘Historically, at abbeys and institutes like the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS), people came and withdrew themselves. They went into their own rooms to write their own books or articles, and there was not much emphasis on the intellectual community. Now we have greater ambition: We think that people’s own research gets better when making use of an outside view, drawn from a different discipline. Of course, this requires something in the way people present their research: It must be accessible to a wide audience of educated people. Then people can identify related questions within their own disciplines. My role is to think with others about what to bring out in your presentation, so that you receive meaningful responses from those who really have a different background but can nonetheless contribute something that will improve your research. Sometimes all it takes is for them to realize the sort of wider audience they might be presenting and writing for. They can remove jargon but keep what can readily be followed by researchers from other disciplines.’

There are many additional ideas and a large body of scientific literature concerning how to further stimulate successful interdisciplinary collaboration. Accounts of personal experiences from our interviewees illustrate how important it is, from the outset, to make explicit the disciplinary gaps in knowledge – not only to foster new interdisciplinary ideas but also to facilitate a thorough discussion of the potential hurdles threatening the collaboration. A good starting point could be the posing of a not-so-obvious question. Peter Sloot observes: ‘We don’t really ask people to tell what they know, because if I want to know what you know I can just read your papers or your thesis. I’m interested in what you do not know. The best advice I can give if you want to kick-start interdisciplinary discussions is just for someone to say what he doesn’t know.’ Wim Huisman mentioned that enforcing strict definitions of what can and cannot be labelled interdisciplinary research is not a good idea: ‘When you uphold certain definitions . . . you inhibit the development of interdisciplinary research. I find it difficult to pinpoint the exact outlines of interdisciplinary research, but if you want to pinpoint everything precisely you are losing something – namely the development of new research lines.’

‘Some form of reflection about presuppositions towards the object of study should be mandatory in any interdisciplinary proposal or project. Moreover, this process of reflection is iterative, with questions, methods and/or the study object itself being tweaked in every cycle.’

Machiel Keestra notes that as an interdisciplinary collaboration ramps up there should be ongoing attention directed towards defining the research and the salient research questions: ‘Some form of reflection about presuppositions towards the object of study should be mandatory in any interdisciplinary proposal or project. Moreover, this process of reflection is iterative, with questions, methods and/or the study object itself being tweaked in every cycle.’

Sustaining a shared passion

Equally important to the development of collaborations is the presence of, and the commitment to, an overarching goal. Interdisciplinary research usually takes a greater amount of time than other sorts of research, and is more difficult to use in the service of personal advancement. Thus, one should ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the project. Sufficient time and effort to make the collaboration work are indispensable. Bob Pierik has experienced firsthand how such a shared goal helps keep a community together: ‘What can hinder interdisciplinary collaboration is the fragmenting of your shared goal in practice. In our project, a shared methodology bridges our different research interests. That’s what makes it useful and interesting to keep talking to one another.’ Natali Helberger adds: ‘I think one factor that has definitely contributed to the success of [our interdisciplinary project] was a hypermotivated team. You need to love what you’re doing. Otherwise don’t do it, because it’s quite an adventure. It asks a lot of you. It’s a journey, and it’s risky. So you need to have people who are not risk-averse. It’s much safer, after all, to remain within the definitions of your own discipline. So you need a motivated team that is eager to take risks. You need a topic that speaks to all the disciplines, a unifying concept or theme or research question that speaks to what makes these people tick.’

However, having common goals or problems may not be the only prerequisites for successful collaboration, and seemingly trivial matters may prove to make or break interdisciplinary collaboration. A shared space to meet in person was something particularly mentioned as a crucial element of informal interaction as well as the integration of knowledge from different disciplines. Peter Sloot comments: ‘I think there are four things that we really need: (1) a common problem […], (2) a common language to start with […], (3) a common place to meet […], and (4) shared funding.’ Natali Helberger described how she and her colleagues benefitted from being mindful of the importance of physical proximity: ‘Physical location helped a lot, the fact that we could meet. We would alternate locations every week, so that we could meet people, sit in a room together and drink coffee. I think that’s a really important factor helping us to grow the team and to move forward.’

It may well be that to keep motivation high and to actually exchange ideas usefully,  successful collaborations across disciplines need to be hands-on endeavours. As Bob Pierik describes his project: ‘A crucial part of its beginning phase was developing some kind of method to start doing what we wanted to do. The collaboration worked because there really was some kind of practical problem that we all had to solve together.’ Natali Helberger relates something similar: ‘What also helped a lot is that we had joint data collection, a couple of longitudinal surveys which brought us together and forced us to really work together.’

Interpersonal processes

Interpersonal processes often receive little specific attention, likely because they are so case-specific. However, our interviewees do underline that further insights and inspiration may emerge by taking a look at how people interact and determining whether they trust one another. Philipp Tuertscher shares what he experienced while investigating collaborations at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research): ‘One of the leading scientists in the Atlas collaboration at CERN told me in the beginning that if you want to understand our science you need to understand our collaboration, but if you don’t understand the science you won’t understand the collaboration. So you need to have an appreciation of the technical intricacies, but you also need to be very sensitive to the sociological processes going on.’ Fernando Santos stresses that interpersonal trust is necessary for interdisciplinary work: ‘For interdisciplinarity you really have to trust your peers, because you are working in teams and the problems are usually hard. Then you have to have a flexible mindset and need to understand your colleagues and their research partners because each person’s questions are different. So this is really a skill you have to develop.’

As indicated in section 3, modesty and the ability to listen to others are significant characteristics of (optimal) interdisciplinary researchers. However, group dynamics may often favour more extroverted members inclined to assume dominant roles. Attending to sufficient temperamental diversity in this regard, and ensuring that less vocal members not be ignored, is therefore important. Claartje Rasterhoff reflects: ‘Something that I feel has gotten in my way a bit is that you may get snowed under compared to more monodisciplinary collaborators: If you are inclined to take on the role of a connector or facilitator, it may be more difficult to develop towards leadership positions within collaborations.’

Perhaps it would be better for some students to become fluent in a specific domain before they embark on interdisciplinary research.

Wim Huisman mentions that as a PhD candidate, an interdisciplinary approach is not necessarily the easiest choice. According to him, it depends on the subject and the attitude of the candidate. Nonetheless it is important that such candidates realize that doing interdisciplinary research is fun and challenging but that the stakes are potentially high. Perhaps it would be better for some students to become fluent in a specific domain before they embark on interdisciplinary research. The situation that many interdisciplinary PhD candidates find themselves in is worth mentioning explicitly. Usually supervised by scholars having different backgrounds, employing different epistemological frameworks and pursuing duties according to fundamentally differently schedules, these PhD candidates must find a way largely on their own to learn from various sources while still writing a coherent dissertation. In doing so, Charisma Hehakaya finds it essential to initiate discussions on both the content and process of her research: ‘Whenever I notice a divergence in ideas between my supervisors, I actively engage them and invite them to think with me on what this divergence means for our work. The fact that they are always responsive when I do so really strengthens my feeling of ownership of the dissertation. And it is important to make ideas visible. Write them down, literally. Language is important. A concept can have different meanings across disciplines.’

Feeling lost

Notably, those of us working in mainly monodisciplinary departments and teams may find it difficult to find a community. During our AYA interdisciplinary lunches we noticed that many members of our own community have experienced a feeling of ‘not belonging’ and being lonely. For example, if everyone in a monodisciplinary department goes to the same talks and conferences, and you as an interdisciplinary researcher also go to other types of events, you (1) often don’t have your immediate colleagues around you (this is of course also beneficial for meeting new people), (2) miss out on the shared experiences that your colleagues are having and (3) still don’t feel at home with the likely monodisciplinary researchers you meet at the field-specific event. Looking for like-minded people may indeed be difficult, but we hope that the interdisciplinarity group within AYA could be a starting point for those new to interdisciplinarity.

In terms of the nature of successful interdisciplinary collaboration more related to content, our interviews provide numerous insights. Philipp Tuertscher emphasizes the importance of ‘interlaced knowledge’ (Tuertscher et al., 2014), ‘the pockets of shared knowledge interwoven within and across subsystem communities’ – in other words, decentralized knowledge that overlaps between different disciplinary groups, forming an interwoven web.

In practice, creating interlaced knowledge means that people from a particular discipline also develop a certain amount of knowledge and expertise in the other discipline(s) involved and become hubs of knowledge within the network of collaborators. Using the interdisciplinary collaboration at CERN as an example, Tuertscher further explains the importance of interlaced knowledge, which in his case ‘made the whole enterprise much more robust, because the collaborators had a lot of backup solutions that they could fall back on when one of the solutions turned out to be infeasible. Also, when a person from this large collaboration, which had very permeable boundaries, suddenly exited the collaboration and newcomers came in, there were still some redundant, overlapping manifestations of expertise from the people who remained. That made this collaboration very robust.’

‘Interestingly, interlaced knowledge encompasses not only an understanding of what others do. The knowledge of what, how and why is also very important. You need to understand not just what others in another discipline are doing but also the assumptions underlying their frameworks, their motivations, why they do things in a certain way. That allows you to understand what you need to change or what you need to tell them if you want to engage in collaboration with them.’

  1. Tuertscher P, Garud R, Kumaraswamy A (2014). Justification and interlaced knowledge at ATLAS, CERN. Organization Science 25(6):1579-1608.

Interdisciplinarity Beyond the Buzzword

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

Tips & Tricks

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

There’s nothing more useful than a listicle to end this interdisciplinarity guide. We have condensed the top 10 tips and tricks from our many interviews.

System: What is the influence of funding, publishing and promotion?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

All academics are embedded within an academic landscape. Unfortunately, most of our interviewees are concerned the current academic landscape prompts most researchers to shy away from interdisciplinary research.

Education: How and why should we train students and researchers in interdisciplinary ways?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

Integrating interdisciplinary aspects into teaching – or even offering a fully interdisciplinary programme – has the potential to bring several benefits to students. It also brings with it a set of challenges.

Goal: When is interdisciplinarity necessary or of added value?

A Guide to Academic Work Across Disciplines

‘Interdisciplinarity’ has become a ubiquitous academic buzzword. Given this often unquestioned enthusiasm, one should ask a set of basic questions.