Thursday, July 7, 2016

Interdisciplinary science

This study in Nature looking at grant success rates for the Australian Research Council's Discovery Programme over a 5 year period confirms with data what has long been suspected--interdisciplinary projects are less likely to be funded, and the effect is stronger the more interdisciplinary the proposal is. This is an issue not only for those of us who do a lot of interdisciplinary science (who of course want to be funded), but also for science in general, since more and more modern science is at the interface between disciplines.

Anecdotally, what is true for proposal evaluation also appears to be true (for me at least) in getting manuscripts published. My more interdisciplinary work needs to be shopped around a bit at different journals, sometimes 3 or 4 times before even going out for review. In contrast, my work that fits into a "traditional" discipline is apparently easier to match to a journal, since it tends to go out for review straight away (even if it isn't accepted at the first journal).

It is much harder to find appropriate reviewers for interdisciplinary work--I often end up recommending a list half in one field, half in another. Even so, referee reports often come back with serious misconceptions about the parts of the manuscript that are obvious out of the referee's area of expertise. The system of using 2 referees means that if I am lucky, I will get referees with 2 different areas of expertise. Alas, more often both reports are from reviewers in the same general "traditional" area, who then either ignore out of area issues, or don't appreciate the novelty, difficulty, or significance of the out of discipline results. It is hard to know how much of this is caused by my issues (writing style, not a strong enough introduction, lack of clarity, too much in love with the data, etc) and how much is lack of core knowledge in the referee at times.

If this is the case for manuscripts, it is almost certainly also the case for proposal evaluation. Moreover, I suspect that interdisciplinary proposals have a harder time attracting a strong advocate who can sell the research to the rest of the panel. Having served on panels myself, if a proposal does not attract a champion, it can be easily overlooked even if the science is top notch and the writing is clear.

Unfortunately for me, the problems I am interested in and the methods I use to solve them are highly interdisciplinary in nature. I often collaborate with colleagues in other subfields and departments. A long time ago, I realized that many people would be extremely skeptical of some aspects of my work. I am confident that the research I do is exciting and important--the problem is in getting others to see it, of course. To counter out of hand rejection of some of our admittedly very unusual research combinations, a good cover letter is crucial. I also find that it is extremely important to attend conferences and have student attend conferences so that potential reviewers see the work presented BEFORE they get a manuscript or proposal to review. Hopefully, that little bit of familiarity helps establish enough benefit of the doubt for people to read the work with an open mind, rather than dismissing it out of hand. With the increasing number of manuscripts and proposals submitted, there is less and less time to consider a manuscript/proposal, so snap judgements are important. As an aside, a side benefit of doing unusual research is that we don't worry much about being scooped on our very interdisciplinary stuff no matter how much we talk about it prior to publication.

I am not sure what to do about the problem of evaluating interdisciplinary work, but this will be an ongoing problem for the scientific community. Anyone else have strategies for helping others appreciate the novelty/beauty/significance of their work?


Funny Researcher said...

I do highly interdisciplinary work and this is a constant problem. In my experience the people who are doing interdisciplinary work similar to yours will be able to appreciate your work. If the audience is one or the other field they you sort of have to get into their shoes and present (and or evaluate). Whenever possible, I try to picture both sides so that people can appreciate the contribution.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comment, FR. This has been a source of frustration for a while. I take comfort in the observation that I do get my work funded, and that my manuscripts (eventually) find a home and get cited.