Interdisciplinary Research and Team Science
Many consider interdisciplinarity to be synonymous with teamwork. It is not. Individuals engage successfully in a variety of solo interdisciplinary activities, ranging from borrowing tools, methods, and concepts from another discipline to teaching courses that migrate to a new hybrid interdiscipline. Moreover, a team may not necessarily be interdisciplinary.
A Core Vocabulary
Klein and Roessner’s (2014) spectrum of keywords reflects differing degrees of integration in a continuum of multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary activities.
DEGREE OF INTEGRATION AND RELATED KEYWORDS
Klein, J.T. (2014). "Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity: Keyword Meanings for Collaboration Science and Translational Medicine." Journal of Translational Medicine and Epidemiology, 2(2): 1024.
As the keywords of multidisciplinarity suggest, members of a team who have different disciplinary expertise might have a common interest in a particular problem, question, or theme. However, their specialized insights are juxtaposed. At best, they appear in segmented serial order, although multidisciplinarity plays a valuable role in expanding the scope of available knowledge and approaches.
Teamwork becomes interdisciplinary when proactive integration occurs through interactions that link, blend, and synthesize separate approaches.
Team collaboration becomes transdisciplinary in two major circumstances:
- (1) With the emergence of new conceptual and methodological frameworks in broad areas of scholarship, such as sustainability and health and wellness, and the emergence of overarching syntheses such as general systems theory and feminist theory; and
- (2) When stakeholders from multiple sectors of society participate in solving "real-world" problems.
In both cases, existing disciplinary approaches and interdisciplinary combinations of them are transcended with the intent of transforming them.
An Evolving Relationship
The term "interdisciplinarity" has a longer history than the term "team science." Yet, the relationship has long been recognized. It is dated conventionally to the early 1920s, with the founding of the Social Science Research Council. The term “interdisciplinarity” was shorthand for research that crossed the Council’s seven disciplinary societies, focused on social problems such as poverty, crime, and war. World War II, though, was a watershed in this history, highlighted by the Manhattan Project and the beginnings of operations research. “Interdisciplinary task force management” was also a notable feature of military operations, civilian affairs, engineering projects, feasibility studies, and industrial R&D concentrated on a collaborative approach to a specific problem. By the 1960s, interdisciplinarity was a recognized force in space research. By the 1970s and 1980s, demands for interdisciplinary teamwork heightened in science-based areas of manufacturing, computer sciences, biomedicine and pharmaceuticals, and high technology. This approach also became prominent with the emergence of molecular biology and large-scale projects such as the Human Genome Project.
Structures of interdisciplinary collaboration have differed over time. The presence of laboratories, centers, and institutes to solve military problems during the World War II era accustomed academic administrators to having large-scale, collaborative projects on campuses. Yet, many did not last beyond that era. In subsequent decades, the most familiar arrangements in academic institutions were matrix structures, program units superimposed on an existing hierarchy organized around separate disciplines or functional specialties. Centers and institutes were the most visible forms, though in the 1980s and 1990s new alliances emerged, bridging academic and industrial sectors through new partnerships such as joint mergers and entrepreneurial firms.
For a fuller account of this history and pertinent references, see:
The Twin Pillars of Collaboration and Integration
Over the past two decades the sense that both interdisciplinarity and collaboration are now central to research has heightened. This belief circulates widely in reports of science-policy bodies and disciplinary and professional societies. Initial studies tended to apply management and organizational theories of the day to studies of interdisciplinary collaboration, with emphasis on organizational structures, leadership, and types of teams. Over time, the focus expanded from managing teams and organizational units to the complex behavioral dynamics of collaboration and the challenges of creating favorable research cultures and larger institutional environments.
The twin pillars of an integrative approach to team science in the literature are collaboration and integration. There is no universal formula. Teams differ by goals and tasks, project scope and scale, composition, institutional setting, styles of administrative coordination, modes of interaction, and the type of inter- or trans-disciplinarity being practiced. Yet, a number of generic factors enhance prospects for success. At early stages, collaborative readiness, antecedent conditions, and role clarification and negotiation are vital. As the research process unfolds, members of teams also need to continue clarifying differences in disciplinary language, methods, tools, concepts, and perceptions of their roles. These and other factors underscore a crucial difference between solo and collaborative interdisciplinarity: the bridging of cognitive and social dynamics of knowledge production. The problems of interdisciplinary teams are legion, however, including disciplinary territoriality and conflicts, status differences, and conflicting perceptions of collaborative projects. Collaboration requires consensus building, mutuality, and interdependence based on trust and respect for others' inputs.
For an overview of interdisciplinary cognition in relation to the ecological contexts in which
it occurs, see:
For an overview of team science, see:
- D. Stokols, K.L. Hall, B. Taylor, R. Moser, & L. Syme (Eds.). (2008). The Science of Team Science – Assessing the Value of Transdisciplinarity Research. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 35(2), S77-S249.
- Bennett, L., Gadlin, H. & Levine-Finley, S. (2010). Collaboration and Team Science: A Field Guide. Bethesda: National Institutes of Health.
Integration is widely regarded as the crux of inter- and trans-disciplinarity. Models of integration are based in operational theory, studies of human behavior, sociocultural and sociotechnical theories of group interaction, communication theory, decision theory, and the hybrid social, cognitive, educational, organizational, and industrial psychologies. Shortfalls of integration occur when collaboration is shallow rather than deep, forums for exchange are inadequate, participants settle for reductive solutions, infrastructure is lacking, and institutional impediments trump even the best of intentions.
Stage models depict the process of inter- and trans-disciplinary research as a series of steps. For instance, Stokols, Hall, and Vogel (2013) identify four phases in transdisciplinary research and practice: development, conceptualization, implementation, and translation.
Increased attention has also been paid in recent years to comparative methodology, drawing from a large repertoire of options. Well known methods for achieving integration include systems theory and modeling, Delphi and scenario building, simulation, concept mapping, computer synthesis of data and information flow, and integrated environmental assessment and risk management. McDonald, Bammer, and Deane (2009) have identified 14 dialogue methods for research methods in addressing real-world problems. Matthias, Bergmann, and colleagues (2012) have produced a "primer for practice" composed of major methods for transdisciplinary research practice.
Recommended literature on integration in research collaboration:
- McDonald, D., Bammer, G., & Deane, P. (2009). Research Integration Using Dialogue Methods. Australian National University.
- Bergmann, M. et al. (2012). Integration Methods: An Overview of Single Methods for the Transdisciplinary Research Practice. Campus Verlag and University of Chicago. English translation of Methoden Transdisziplinarer Forschung.
- Stokols, D., Hall, K.L., and Vogel, A.L. (2013). "Transdisciplinary Public Health: Definitions, Core Characteristics, and Strategies for Success". In D. Haire-Joshu and T. D. McBride, eds. Transdisciplinary Public Health: Research, Education, and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey Bass/Wiley. 3-30.
Pathways to Further Resources
This overview has identified places to begin exploration of a very large literature. A number of other key topics are also particularly relevant, and related readings are recommended here.
Successful outcomes of interdisciplinary team science, for instance, are associated with the quality of communication on a research team. It is a generative process involving mutual learning of the specialized languages of team members and iterative review of emerging assumptions and results. In the course of working together, team members co-produce interlanguages that combine everyday language, specialist terms, and new conceptual vocabularies emerging from interactions around a common problem or question.
For an overview of inter- and transdisciplinary communication, see:
A number of websites also guide users to further literature. The website that hosts this blog, the Team Science Toolkit, is a user-generated repository of information and other resources that supports the practice and study of team science. It contains over 1000 resources, including practical tools to support successful team-based research, measures and metrics to evaluate or study team science processes and outcomes, and bibliographic entries. The Science of Team Science [SciTS] Mendeley group features cross-disciplinary and inter-professional exchange of information and resources. Members can search resources in the database, create subgroups, and add resources and comments.
Finally, Wayne State University's Division of Research provides a model for serving local needs throughonline annotated bibliographies and coaching and training modules that anyone may access, free-of-charge. The bibliographies include a Beginning Bibliography on Interdisciplinarity and Resources for Interdisciplinary Education. The training modules highlight key resources with tips on how to use them in the areas of Barriers and Strategies, Education and Training, Evaluation, Tenure and Promotion, and Resources for Team Science. A forthcoming module on Leadership is also planned.
For further explanations of terminology see:
About the Author
Julie Thompson Klein, Ph.D., Faculty Fellow for Interdisciplinary Development, Division of Research, and Professor of Humanities, English Department, Wayne State University.
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