Friday, June 08, 2007

Interdisciplinary Pretender

Interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, cross-disciplinary, transdisciplinary..

Science research today crosses and merges disciplinary boundaries, and this is a good thing. X-disciplinary is not just a buzz word, but a way to make significant advances in science. At a personal level, I am a big fan of x-disciplinary research because of the opportunities it provides to discover and learn interesting and fun things and to work with a wide range of colleagues and students.

My willingness to work on projects far from my primary expertise has led to some rather odd collaborations and publications. In some projects, my contribution has been minor and my name only appears in the paper(s) in the acknowledgments. In others projects to which I've more substantially contributed, I am a co-author. It's been interesting to see how other people respond to this latter situation.

I recently co-authored a paper on a topic very far from my field of expertise, and this paper got a bit of recognition from the media and from my university. Some people who know me were very entertained by my being part of this project, and thought it was a great example of interdisciplinary research. Others were suspicious -- what role did I really play in this research? What was my name doing on that paper? Do I really know anything about that topic?

Just yesterday, I had an encounter of the latter sort. I was lurking in front of my department building with some colleagues and students, enjoying the nice day and taking strange pictures of each other for our research group newsletter. A colleague, who happens to be in a research field related to that of the paper that I just co-authored, walked over and launched into a tirade about how ridiculous it is that I am a co-author on this paper. He said it was "pretentious" of me, and that he would never "presume" to publish anything in my field. Then he started grilling me, hostile oral exam style, about the topic. Why didn't the paper address X? What did I think about Y, which is important but which our new data can't answer? Did I know that this paper didn't really answer the ultimate question of this topic but mostly covered things that he already knew and therefore was a minor contribution?

This guy clearly has issues, with me or with his own research progress, or something. I thought his tirade was absurd, and responded by taking his photo while he displayed a very cranky and disapproving face. I just smiled and said, calmly, "Not every paper can answer every question, but that shouldn't stop us from writing them." This was actually not a nice thing to say, as he does not publish very much.

It was a bizarre conversation, but what really surprised me about it was the point of view that interdisciplinary research is pretentious. This had never occurred to me before. I think it is a very destructive point of view, rooted in insecurity, weakness, and intellectual failure. Not everyone should or can do interdisciplinary research - and not all interdisciplinary research is inherently 'better' than discipline-focused research - but those who cannot or will not work outside their sub-disciplines should not be contemptuous of (or threatened by) those who do.


mapletree7 said...

Let's face it - you were being uppity.

ALH said...

Good thoughts! I'm sorry about the disgruntled colleague. Personally I think it's pretentious of him to think that he is the only one qualified to publish on that particular topic. My research by it's nature is interdisciplinary. Without my knowledge of both "science" and "engineering" I would not be able to do what I do. So I agree, we really can only learn what we need to learn if we break down the barriers!

Also, I want to say your blog is very appreciated. I'm a young scientist, and hoping to become a professor soon and it's nice to know that the issues I face aren't only my own!

Luis Felipe said...

Whatta jerk. I think you handled that remarkably well.

PhysioProf said...

"Others were suspicious"

When I was on the job search for my first independent faculty position, there was this one interviewer who was obsessed with the fact that I am the member of a scientific society that could, if looked at superficially, be viewed as in an area not directly related to the research program I was selling at the time. He kept asking me over and over why I was a member of that society, and didn't seem satisfied by my answer that, while my proposed research plan was not directly in that area, I have published in that area in the past, continue to have an interest in that area, and might publish again in that area in the future. He kept harping on this, and seemed downright offended that I would conceive of my scientific identity broadly enough to choose to belong to this society.

I agree that this kind of discomfort with broad interdisciplinary approaches is grounded in fear and insecurity. I am glad that I did not take a position at the institution where this person would have been my faculty colleague. The job I took is at a place where broad interdisciplinary approaches are highly valued.

Anonymous said...

In a faculty interview, a very senior woman in a related field called me "unfocused" because my work is somewhat interdisciplinary. I didn't get the job.

Female Science Professor said...

That's a very important point -- I worried about that earlier in my career. Sometimes being interdisciplinary works for you and sometimes it works against you. I am optimistic that the automatic equation of broad with unfocused is becoming less common.

Harv said...

wow, that's so terrible!

In a more positive story, my fiance got a job at a university where their new paradigm is "schools" instead of departments (i.e., Earth/Space Exploration vs. separate Geology, Astronomy, Aerospace departments). This is by nature more interdisciplinary and when he interviewed, had to talk to people both inside and far outside his field. He was thrilled with this idea and I think they really got that he was interested in such work - even if he never published papers in those other areas. :) It even seemed like they weren't going to hire those people who couldn't (or wouldn't want to) talk to everyone in the school.

I was talking to one of the profs at my current department and he said that things may be moving into these more interdisciplinary programs rather than the separate departments.

Anonymous said...

Best. Comeback. Ever.

Anonymous said...

That is sad about "unfocused", I worry about it a bit because I'm early in my career, but not too much. The fact of the matter is it was my interdisciplinariness that got me this job, as it is in a completely different department than my PhD. Sometimes I don't fit in well, and I miss my home department, but I think it is pretty clear that the questions I am interested in answering are better served by a multi-disciplinary approach. I'm just trying to fight the urge to add yet another field until I have tenure in the bag ;)

Ancarett said...

he does not publish very much

Bingo! We have a reason for the hostility right here. Why wasn't that feted and celebrated publication solely authored or co-authored by him, rather than by an interloper (you).

You see, if publishing in his field is inherently so difficult and problematic that even he, the great scholar that he is, doesn't have a big publication record, his worldview holds. But if "anyone" (i.e. an outsider) can be published while he isn't? He's exposed as a fraud.

That said, this sounds like a worthwhile project despite the fact that it was outside your own field -- illustrating that there's a lot of cross-fertilization in academia and giving you a chance to explore those interconnections outside your field. Good for you!

Anonymous said...

harv - be careful with that praise. In my alma mater (which has sadly declined in the last few years), moving to the 'schools' paradigm was a convenient excuse to axe physics, chemistry, math, computer science, straight biology, English, straight History, and others. These programs were 'replaced' by weak, undergrad-crowd-pleasing-but-lightweight 'interdisciplinary' programs of the type that cause all these generally-wrong negative stereotypes in the first place! Interdisciplinary work is a great thing, but there IS a need for the reasonably clear demarcation of fields too, and we shouldn't lose sight of that.

Plague of Crickets said...

In my experience it is the less productive faculty members that are the most territorial. Their standing is based on the fact that they are the local expert in their area, despite the fact that they don't publish very much. When colleagues start publishing on topics they perceive as theirs, I think they view it as challenge to their standing as the local expert. It seems to be less of an issue for more productive faculty members as they can stand on records rather than their reputations.

Jorge Alves said...

Good text.

gs said...

When Mandelbrot's first book pointed out the prevalence of fractals in nature, I heard people pooh-pooh it because he hadn't provided bottom-up derivations: for example, he didn't derive the fractal coastline of Britain from a model for hydrodynamic erosion. Sheesh.

On the other hand, self-interested managerial/political/bureaucratic types may use interdisciplinary programs--the bigger, the better--as a pretext to take power from researchers. Hucksters and outright frauds may be attracted.

I am better disposed toward x-disciplinary efforts which emerge from within the scientific disciplines involved than toward ones which are externally formulated.

Ms.PhD said...

I think it's critical that we do interdisciplinary research, while recognizing our limitations. There are a lot of ethical issues, since you can't possibly read everything or know as much as a real expert in the field, you have to find experts to collaborate and then trust your co-authors to educate you and make sure everything is kosher, etc.

A lot of people are very sloppy about this and try to go off and learn a new field, or worse, bring in a grad student to learn it, without ever consulting the literature or colleagues until the experiments are finished... that's not the way to do it.

You did it the right way, so I'm sure you'll brush this guy off. I just hope he's old and retiring soon. If we're still making young scientists with attitudes like that, we're in bigger trouble than I thought.

I honestly think the lack of interdisciplinarity is one of the things that has held science back for a long time. Progress would be a lot faster if it were facilitated instead of feared.

Anonymous said...

Oh man. This is a major peeve of mine, though I know it's different in the humanities. The idea that bringing skills and ideas from other disciplines, that reaching, could be pretentious makes me sick. Everything we know enriches everything else we do, and people who have some sort of bogus ideal of intellectual purity only hold back the search for knowledge in any field.

theunbeatablekid said...

I think that the problem of people being pretentious in the guise of being interdisciplinary really is more an issue at the undergrad level than at the level of professors. Undergrads are much more likely to think that they’re experts at something after a single class while after graduate school most academics stick to what they know even after publishing a paper outside of their field.

Aaron said...

My main complaint as someone who primarily works on interdisciplinary topics is that funding agencies (and University departments) often view such work as merely good public relations. The public loves the idea of interdisciplinary research, but specific domains actually hate it because they perceive it as taking money away from their more focused / traditional research topics. In other words, they'll all for it, so long as someone else is paying for it.

For folks situated comfortably in a department, branching out into interdisciplinary areas seems like an exciting way to spend some of their "free time", but for young researchers trying to make a career out of interdisciplinary work, this environment seems pretty terrifying.