Friday, September 18, 2015

Interdisciplinary Research

Nature has a special set of articles devoted to interdisciplinarity (16 Septermber 2015). Ii've offer excerpts and comments on two of the articles.


Since the mid-1980s, research papers have increasingly cited work outside their own disciplines. The analysis shown here used journal names to assign more than 35 million papers in the Web of Science to 14 major conventional disciplines (such as biology or physics) and 143 specialities. The fraction of paper references that point to work in other disciplines is increasing in both the natural and the social sciences. The fraction that points to another speciality in the same discipline (for example, a genetics paper pointing to zoology) shows a slight decline.
Judging from the graphs, in the social sciences 40% of the papers referenced other disciplines in 1950, dropping to 33% in the early 1970s, and then rising to just below 50% in 2010.

Whether interdisciplinary research gains more citations than disciplinary research is contentious. Over three years, papers with diverse references tend to pick up fewer citations than the norm, but over 13 years they gain more. Some studies suggest that a little interdisciplinarity is better than a lot: papers that combine very disparate fields tend to earn fewer citations. But interdisciplinary work can have broad societal and economic impacts that are not captured by citations.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the article is an intereactive chart that allows you to explore the interdisciplinary tendencies of various disciplines between 1950 and 2014. Each disciplinary area is represented on a graph where the X axis indicates how percentage of references to outside disciplines while the Y axis represents citations from outside disciplines. This chart is worth exploring.

Literature doesn't show up as a recognizeable area until about 1975, w/ 41% references to other disciplines and 13% citations from outside. By 1990 references to outside have dropped to 23% while citations from outside have risen to 21%. In 2010 literature has 37% references out and 29% citations from outside. Compared to other humanities disciplines (religion, language and linguistics, philosophy, history, and miscellaneous), literary studies is a bit more insular, both in its citation practices and in citations received.

* * * * *

Since the Beckman was founded [in the 1980s], the interdisciplinary model has spread around the world, countering the trend towards specialization that had dominated science since the Second World War. Cross-cutting institutes have sprouted up in the United States, Europe, Japan, China and Australia, among other places, as researchers seek to solve complex problems such as climate change, sustainability and public-health issues. The interdisciplinary trend can be seen in publication data, where more than one-third of the references in scientific papers now point to other disciplines. [...]

Even so, supporters of interdisciplinary research say that it has been slow to catch on, and those who do cross academic disciplines face major challenges when applying for grants, seeking promotions or submitting papers to high-impact journals. In many cases, scientists say, the trend is nothing more than a fashionable label. [...]
The current structure of academic disciplines originated in the 19th century and "disciplines surged in number and power after the Second World War". In a 1959 President Eisenhower urged that the US concentrate on basic research, where there is less pressure toward interdisciplinarity than in applied research, which as emphasized in the USSR.
From this thicket, the term 'interdisciplinary' emerged. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates back to December 1937, in a sociology journal. But even at that time, some believed that the word was already overused. In a report to the US Social Science Research Council in August that year, a sociologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois lumped 'interdisciplinarity' in with other “catch phrases and slogans which were not sufficiently critically examined” (R. Frank Items 40, 73–78; 1988).

As an academic movement, interdisciplinarity caught on during the 1970s and has been growing ever since, says Larivière. He credits that rise in part to libraries, which began to stockpile subscriptions and improved researchers' access to journals in alternative fields. A particle physicist could more easily browse biology journals, say. Furthermore, the US focus began to shift from basic research and scientific liberty back to societal problems such as environmental protection, which can rarely be tackled by a single discipline.
In general, there seems to be a lot of interdisciplinary research going on, much of it in interdepartmental centers. But the picture varies from one country to another, from one set of disciplines to another.

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