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Interdisciplinary research: Challenges, perceptions, and the way forward

Sneha Kulkarni | Nov 4, 2015 | 10,705 views
Interdisciplinary research

Till the 1970s, research was discipline-bound. However, as the focus began shifting from basic research to resolving bigger challenges such as climate change, food and water crisis, public health, etc., research had to transcend the boundaries of disciplines, thus making headway for interdisciplinary research. Since interdisciplinary research oversteps the conventional limits of a discipline, many experts believe that interdisciplinary research can resolve problems that single-discipline research cannot.

Interdisciplinary research has been gaining traction in the recent years and has been creating a wider social and economic impact. When academics were asked to submit cases of research that had significant impact outside academia to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), 80% were found to be interdisciplinary. Advocates of interdisciplinary research point that progress in interdisciplinary research has a positive impact on single disciplines as well. Moreover, interdisciplinary research provides more chances of making discoveries since consolidated knowledge can lead to novel insights. With research now becoming increasingly global and collaborative, interdisciplinary research is deemed to be the future of science and research.

However, academics who delve into interdisciplinary research face several challenges when it comes to receiving funding, gaining recognition, and even getting published. Top-tier disciplinary journals are skeptical of publishing interdisciplinary research, and there are few journals that publish interdisciplinary research exclusively. Moreover, journals also find it difficult to select reviewers who can evaluate interdisciplinary research. This particularly affects young researchers, which is why they opt to be a part of the conventional discipline structure rather than delving into interdisciplinary research.

Funding is another hurdle faced by interdisciplinary research pursuers. The budgets of academic institutions are usually focused around single disciplines. The UK government's triennial review of the country's seven national research councils reports that respondents have difficulties in getting funding for interdisciplinary research. It further adds that several researchers have reverted to their original disciplines as the possibility of getting secure funding are greater for single disciplines. Although the review report noted that in-depth data is required to assess the scale of this problem, it acknowledges the need for creating a separate funding structure or a better review process that would help represent interdisciplinary research at the same scale as single-discipline research.

Proponents of conventional disciplinary research opine that interdisciplinary research drains funds and time from core disciplines. A possible reason behind this could be the lack of adequate and appropriate methods of measuring the impact of interdisciplinary research. Scholars assent that tapping its impact is tough because interdisciplinary research is complex, and the opinion is divided on whether it gains more citations than disciplinary research. Additionally, quantitative metrics that are used to measure the impact of disciplinary research do not favor interdisciplinary research. An analysis of citations that multidisciplinary research receives suggests that papers with diverse references tend to pick up fewer citations over three years than expected, but over 13 years, they manage to gain more citations. However, the broad societal and economic impacts of interdisciplinary work are not captured by citations, notes the analysis. As the impact of interdisciplinary research is not immediate, funders may not see merit in investing in interdisciplinary research compared to conventional research.

Apart from problems related to funding and publication, interdisciplinary research involves a greater challenge - the success of interdisciplinary projects rests on various disciplines reaching a common ground. However, the growing trend of interdisciplinary research globally is an indication that proponents of differing disciplines are collaborating seamlessly. Interdisciplinary research is on the rise not only in the west but also in the east.

The challenges facing interdisciplinary research are many-faced. However, major stakeholders of science, including funders, governments, and journals, have recognized the importance of supporting it. Hence, the Global Research Council (GRC), a federation of more than 50 national research funders, with representatives from countries including Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, has selected interdisciplinarity as one of its two annual themes for an in-depth report, debate, and statement between 2015 and 2016.

What are your thoughts regarding interdisciplinary research? Please share your views in the comment box below. 

References:

Grant giving: Global funders to focus on interdisciplinarity

Available from: http://www.nature.com/news/grant-giving-global-funders-to-focus-on-interdisciplinarity-1.18344, Accessed in October 2015

Why interdisciplinary research matters 

Available from: http://www.nature.com/news/why-interdisciplinary-research-matters-1.18370, Accessed in October 2015

Interdisciplinary research by the numbers 

Available from: http://www.nature.com/news/interdisciplinary-research-by-the-numbers-1.18349, Accessed in October 2015 

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