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: The system, that is, or place of learning that encompasses the procurement of funding as well as publishing and evaluation. The academic landscape affects whether scholars’ interdisciplinary approach hinders or advances their careers. Unfortunately, most of our interviewees expressed concerns that the current academic landscape prompts most researchers to shy away from interdisciplinary research. Peter Sloot summarizes the overarching problem:
‘Teaching, funding, and evaluation are all monodisciplinary, while our big problems are interdisciplinary. I think that’s the biggest problem we have to solve.’
Sense of belonging
In general, researchers have been trained in a single discipline and then have remained within their own discrete field. Dario Corradini reflects: ‘A problem regarding the genuine facilitation of interdisciplinary research starts in the educational process itself: Classes are given within a particular field or discipline. Even now, with interdisciplinary research becoming more and more important, there is relatively little cross-fertilization between disciplines at universities. Thus begins the culture in which you “belong” to a particular field from the get-go. As you mature in your field, there is the problem of the departmental structure that we find in most universities: You need to be embedded within a traditional monodisciplinary department and should therefore publish in that discipline and build a track record in it. All these issues impact to some extent the publishing culture of researchers and, as a consequence, how journal editors handle submissions.’
To facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations, researchers, explains Philipp Tuertscher, need to have objects and resources in common: A shared jargon, space, devices or methods. This is what is called ‘boundary infrastructure’. ‘My colleagues who studied how organizations can overcome these boundaries found two types of shared objects: shared technical infrastructure and shared students.’ Regarding infrastructure: ‘So you have, for example, new types of microscopes that are useful for scientists working in chemistry, and then they team up with people from nano-science centers. Of course, they need those people in order to understand how these instruments work. You also maximize the utilization of these instruments if a lot of outside parties come to these nano-centers as hosts and use such instruments. So this is how the instrument itself, in its availability, provokes collaboration.’
‘It is very difficult for us to escape our own rhythms in our own communities’.
Apart from a shared physical resource such as a tool or apparatus, shared resources can also include, for example, entities such as data cohorts. AYA member Elsje van Bergen works at the Netherlands Twin Register at VU Amsterdam. The Netherlands Twin Register has data concerning more than 120,000 twins and their family members. The register includes behavioural and DNA data (Ligthart et al., 2019). Such a shared data resource stimulates collaboration amongst academics from a wide range of fields, such as (epi)genetics, psychology, educational sciences, movement sciences, epidemiology and statistics.
Regarding shared or jointly supervised students, Tuertscher says that ‘they’re the catalysts, they’re vital’. He contrasts students with midand late-career academics: ‘It is very difficult for us to escape our own rhythms in our own communities. It is much easier for students to engage in this role and become facilitators to bridge these disciplinary boundaries. […] Students very often forge connections because they acknowledge there could be a supervisor from a second discipline that they can leverage. So for a student it is a win-win situation, because the student gets different types of feedback and can develop a new line of research. Such a student can build a career based on a foundation that would, of course, also be possible for a professor, for a faculty member, but that person typically has much higher opportunity cost involved and much more at stake if it weren’t to work out.’ Tuertscher here introduces the term ‘path dependency’ for mid- and late-career academics: ‘Once you have created your profile, it’s not so easy for you to deviate from it. You would be diluting your profile: you are well known and established in your domain. You are more productive and efficient working in your domain because you understand it very well.’ According to Tuertscher, the collaboration between junior researchers who connect fields and senior monodisciplinary researchers who see the big picture enhances the changes of big discoveries. Tuertscher remarks that ‘you need to organize for serendipity’.
Regarding funding for interdisciplinary work, Taco de Vries sees many hurdles standing in the way of interdisciplinary applications. First, the applicant: ‘People tend to follow the regular paths within their own domain, rather than go off the beaten track.’ Second, the reviewers: ‘Reviewers are selected based on their expertise, which is usually monodisciplinary.’ So it is very difficult to get a balanced assessment of an interdisciplinary proposal. Finally, the panel members of the grant scheme inevitably find it very challenging to handle interdisciplinary proposals. The proposals typically fall outside their domain of expertise, and with just three review reports in hand – potentially differing widely in perspective and in their assessments – panel members have little guidance. To get back to the applicants, they are trained in a certain discipline. And then another discipline is added, because that is important for the formulation of the question. But in principle they are, of course, not as well trained. So they are somewhat more dependent on collaboration with people with expertise in other areas. Which is good in itself, but with a personal grant, the question for the panel is always: Can someone pull it off on their own?’
Research that is interdisciplinary can also cause clashes at the publishing stage. Wim Huisman comments that ‘the paradigms are different and so are the mores – this is how we do things here. For example, rules about how many authors go on a paper. In law it’s only the PhD candidate, whereas in the natural sciences it’s everyone who has even slightly participated in the lab where the data comes from. And then you have an article with ten authors. And the placement of the author tells the insider what that author’s particular contribution is to the paper. A lawyer would find that very strange, and not even ethical. Then you indeed have two cultural differences between two disciplines that you can argue about if you put those people together around a PhD candidate.’ Huisman goes on to say that ‘you will be judged on the number of publications within a certain area. And then you shouldn’t take any risks. In publication culture you see a brake on interdisciplinarity, while in the research funding system you see that there is an incentive for interdisciplinarity. But when it comes to that publication culture, that is precisely what people want to break through these days.’
Recognition and rewards
Recognition and rewards are closely tied with publishing your work and getting funded for new work. Taco de Vries on getting grants and tenure: ‘A department mainly looks at whether someone obtains grants. That is an important guideline. So that means that if the funding agency has a financing instrument that is favourable to monodisciplinary people, you simply build up those kinds of people in your department. Because everyone is trying to align and mold themselves to the hoops of the funding agencies.’
Guy Geltner notes that panel members for the awarding of grants and members of hiring committees look at people’s Google Scholar and H-index, which is quicker than reading a long CV. ‘But they look at all these metrics that are in fact machine-generated. The impact factors of journals in one field are meaningless in another field. So they outsource their quality control to Google Scholar or to PubMed or to whatever index they’re looking at.’ The incomparability of these metrics across (sub)fields can cause issues to arise; what we consider ‘excellent science’ is especially problematic across disciplines. In sum, although the situation is slowly changing, the current academic landscape is still made by, and for, monodisciplinary researchers.
Deviating from the status quo seems to remain challenging due to a diminished sense of belonging and because of greater difficulties in getting funded and published and being awarded tenure.
‘… the current academic landscape is still made by, and for, monodisciplinary researchers.’