Our study shows multidisciplinarity is a risky career move

The higher their performance, the more interdisciplinary scientists are penalised by colleagues as a threat to the status quo, find four researchers

June 28, 2022
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In the past few years, leading academic organisations have increasingly developed and promoted multidisciplinarity. We see many marketing campaigns proclaiming that such an approach supports a more holistic training of future leaders and a richer, more innovative research environment.

However, our research shows that multidisciplinary academics may be at a disadvantage when they are evaluated by their peers. And what is even more striking is that the better their scientific track record, the greater that disadvantage is.

This is particularly surprising given previous research on the topic. Received wisdom suggests that multidisciplinary scientists are discriminated against because evaluators find their work confusing and suspect them of being less skilled and reliable than standard scientists in their discipline. But if that were true, evidence of past academic performance should go a long way towards assuaging evaluators’ concerns. We observe something altogether different.

Our study, forthcoming in Organization Science, focuses on the nationwide habilitation process in Italian academia, which is used to accredit candidates as appointable as professors at any Italian public university. Our examination of comprehensive data on 55,497 résumés, submitted to 174 discipline-specific panels, suggests that high-performing multidisciplinary scientists – those with strong publication and citation records – faced a higher bar to acceptance by colleagues.

The effect was sizeable: the average penalty applied to high-performing multidisciplinary candidates was more than 50 per cent higher than the penalty applied to low-performing multidisciplinary candidates. The effect was particularly evident in small and highly cohesive disciplines, which are heavily reliant on discipline-specific journals. We also observed that talented multidisciplinary candidates were assessed more harshly by panels whose members’ publications were highly typical of their discipline.

These results may appear counter-intuitive: why would evaluators penalise performance? Yet they are understandable given that, in academia, a small number of highly talented and productive players tend to have a disproportionate influence on the future of disciplines when it comes to, for instance, choosing priority areas or exploring pathways for renewal. High performers may also be awarded more prestigious positions, command higher salaries and mobilise more resources to challenge the status quo. So when those high performers are multidisciplinary scientists, they are seen by their peers as posing a significant threat to the status quo in their field. Multidisciplinary scientists with a middling track record, by contrast, are relatively innocuous, presenting potential opportunities for enriching the discipline and bringing in new ideas and methods.

Such behaviour is not unique to scientists. In many contexts where new candidates are admitted to closed entities, such as professions and organisations, evaluators engage in a form of gatekeeping. By discriminating against candidates who do not match the archetypal incumbent, they try to maintain the boundaries and identities of the entity they represent.

In any academic evaluation process, there is fundamental trade-off between conservatism and renewal. The elite members of the discipline – who are typically involved in accreditation processes – may legitimately be concerned with maintaining the stability of their field. But when accreditors are invested in a gatekeeping role, closely guarding the knowledge domain and identity of their discipline, innovation and renewal inevitably suffers.

The architects of accreditation processes should consider remedial measures. One example might be to introduce an explicit expectation that multidisciplinary scientists should benefit from “positive discrimination”. It might also be wise to include on panels accreditors who are not directly invested in the status quo, to alleviate the defensiveness inherent in the process.

For academics themselves, our study adds to an already long literature that advocates a cautious approach to multidisciplinarity. While researchers may feel freer to venture outside their home disciplines once they have established a solid track record, our work suggests that the social cost of passing disciplinary borders may then be especially high.

A more nuanced appreciation of this cost and the conditions under which it arises may at least help university decision-makers to design more attractive multidisciplinary initiatives. Until they do, the innovation that they proclaim themselves to be pursuing will continue to be undermined.

Riccardo Fini is a full professor and Laura Toschi is an associate professor in the department of management at the University of Bologna. Julien Jourdan is an associate professor of management and human resources at HEC Paris. Markus Perkmann is professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Imperial College London. Their paper, “A new take on the categorical imperative: Gatekeeping, boundary maintenance, and evaluation penalties in science”, is forthcoming in Organization Science.


Print headline: Multidisciplinarity is a risky career move, our study demonstrates

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Reader's comments (4)

The seekers of truth....
Authors and readers please see how different disciplinary panels viewed this for the UK's REF - some considered inter/multidisciplinary submissions to be 'hollowing out' more traditional disciplinary areas. Other unit panels embraced inter/multidisciplinary submissions for collegiality and internationalism. https://www.ref.ac.uk/publications-and-reports/main-panel-overview-reports/
Questions: 1) why radically overgeneralize from such a limited database? And you consider ourselves "scientists"! 2) If you can't differentiate between "multidisciplinarity" and "interdisciciplinarity," give up immediately. This invalidates the entire overly limited effort.
Single-disciplinary is risky too. When you be multi, you have wider range of job opportunities.