National Academies’ define interdisciplinary research as “a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.1” For example, interdisciplinary research on robotics combines engineering, medicine, computer science, and humanities. Interdisciplinary works in engineering fields such as robotics, manufacturing, and telecommunications engineering have immense societal and economic impacts2 with their problem-solving ability3. Some common challenges of interdisciplinary research include difficulties in collaborating with other disciplines and grasping unfamiliar concepts across disciplines. Therefore, when reporting interdisciplinary research, it is important to adapt your writing style considering the knowledge of your target audience to communicate your findings effectively.
Writing a manuscript covering interdisciplinary engineering research can appear to be a daunting process. The manuscript must convey a clear vision of integration to be considered by peer-reviewed mechanical or electrical engineering interdisciplinary journals. The good news is that effective communication and writing skills required to help make your manuscript publication-ready can easily be learned. Here are 10 tips to help you write a better manuscript in interdisciplinary engineering fields:
- Use the correct terminology: Some terms are easily confused in engineering research papers. One such example is validation vs. verification. In different engineering fields, particularly industrial engineering, these terms have specific meanings. Verification is intended to check that a product/system meets a set of design specifications. Validation is intended to ensure a product/system meets the operational needs of the user. Verification is a relatively objective process, whereas validation is a subjective assessment of how well a system addresses a real-world problem.
- Provide quantitative descriptions: Avoid vague terms and use those that impart specific and clear information. For example, in mechanical engineering or electrical engineering, comparisons between two or more systems are common. In such cases, it is best to provide a quantitative description rather than a qualitative one, e.g., instead of saying the flow rate improved/deteriorated, you would say the flow rate increased/decreased.
- Avoid redundancy: Succinct and direct writing can convey your intended meaning more clearly than long and convoluted sentences. Specific words imply their general categories, so we usually don’t have to state both3. For example, when writing a civil engineering paper, avoid saying, “large in size” or “rectangular in shape.” Instead, say, “large” or “rectangular.”
- Distinguish between commonly used terms: Repko4 suggests avoiding jargon in interdisciplinary research papers. In particular, it is important to be clear about what you are referring to as many terms can have different meanings depending on the context. For example, the term “bonding” has different meanings in different engineering fields. To an electrical engineer, it would mean mechanically securing electrical connections in a system. To a mechanical engineer, it would mean gluing things together. To avoid confusion, it is important that you define the nature of “bonding” described in your engineering paper.
- Be as specific as possible: In engineering research, especially when interdisciplinary in nature, it is important to clearly represent scientific variables and their range of values considered. There should be clarity in what you present, especially because readers from other fields may not be familiar with ideal values or ranges. For example, consider the following sentence, “The amplitude of the stimulation pulse was chosen based on the minimum threshold for joint movement.” An electrical engineer or a mechanical engineer that does not have a background in biomechanics may not be aware of this possible threshold of joint rotation. Different engineering papers may also specify different values. A clearer statement would be, “The amplitude of the stimulation pulse was chosen based on the minimum threshold for joint movement and was 80 μA in this study.”
- Maintain consistency in units: Most engineering journals recommend the use of International System of Units (SI), with appropriate indications for conversion to be provided where non-SI units are used. It is common in some engineering fields to use non-SI units, such as inch, foot, acre, footpound, US ton, gallon, etc. The British thermal unit (BTU) is often used in civil engineering papers. Regardless of the units used, it is important to maintain consistency to avoid any confusion in the results and calculations.
- Use the correct abbreviations for units: Most units of measure in the fields of mechanical engineering and civil engineering are abbreviated when used with numerals or in a virgule construction. Abbreviations or symbols for SI units are written in lowercase (e.g., kg for kilogram, m for meter), with the following exceptions: The first letter of the abbreviated SI unit names derived from a proper name should be capitalized (e.g., N for newton, K for kelvin, A for ampere, Pa for pascal), although the non-abbreviated SI unit names are not capitalized (e.g., newton, ampere), with the exception of “Celsius” in “degree Celsius.”
- Avoid ambiguity: The mathematical field of statistics is now widely used in mechanical, civil, and even electronics and electrical engineering papers. Therefore, when writing in cross-disciplinary journals, the adjective “significant” should be used for statistical descriptions and references. If the data have not been statistically analyzed, consider replacing the word with another word such as “considerable” or “substantial.”
- Define abbreviations that have multiple meanings: Abbreviations or acronyms are widely used in engineering research papers for easy reading. However, because readers may have different technical backgrounds, acronyms should be defined at their first use. For example, to a civil engineer or a mechanical engineer, STP would imply “sewage treatment plant,” while to a chemical engineer, it would mean “standard temperature and pressure.”
- Look out for journal-specific abbreviations: In some interdisciplinary journals, such as the Journal of Micro/Nanopatterning, Materials, and Metrology, addressing the needs of the electronics, microoptoelectromechanical, and photonics industries, has a suggested acronym list that must be used. For example, alternating phase-shifting mask should be abbreviated as AltPSM and not APSM, or A-PSM.
To reach a wider audience from many disciplines, it is important that your findings are conveyed as clearly as possible in engineering papers. Short simple sentences are the key to ensure crisp and effective communication. Moreover, outlining, referencing, and planning can go a long way in helping you draft the clearest account of your engineering research. Use words that come most naturally when drafting your paper and provide precise descriptions that can be understood by academic and industrial researchers, ultimately allowing other practicing engineers to benefit from your engineering research.
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- Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research (National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, 2004).
- Hrynaszkiewicz, I., Acuto, M. Palgrave Communications – connecting research in the humanities, social sciences and business. Palgrave Commun 1, 14006 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2014.6.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab. Eliminating Words. Purdue University https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/academic_writing/conciseness/eliminating_words.html (2021).
- Repko, A. Integrating Interdisciplinarity: How the theories of common ground and cognitive Interdisciplinarity are informing the debate on interdisciplinary integration. Issues in Integrative Studies 3, 1–31 (2007).