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.
9 months ago