Tribes & tribulations

Every discipline has quirks invisible to its insiders. Intrepid scholars who venture into a related field will discover a host of idiosyncrasies that shine new light on the oddities of one's own academic clan, says Adrian Furnham

November 10, 2011

They say that academics know more and more about less and less. The age of the generalist is over. Whole disciplines - once secure land masses in the sea of knowledge - are now archipelagos, pulled apart by powerful tectonic plates. And, thanks to the force of government and funding policies, some new and rather strange rocky outcrops have appeared.

Furthermore, on some islands, a sort of Lord of the Flies situation has developed and tribes have formed that are mutually hostile. These are the disciplines within disciplines. Great barriers have been erected, ditches dug, moats flooded and electric fences constructed to keep out the barbarians, the "non-believers". Who needs enemies when you have colleagues?

Outsiders with little understanding of these feuds can only look on with puzzlement. It is reminiscent of religious tribalism: how the Church of God split into the CoG and the True Church of God, which split into the TCoG and the One True Church of God, which split into the OTCoG and the One and Only True Church of God. And so on.

Boxed into our disciplines, we academics toil away, slaves to the journal-impact factor. Everything about our research has to be geared to the style, interests and ideology of the most prestigious journals in our field. And some academics labour in obscure, forgotten, overlooked corners, where there are few journals of extremely modest impact.

There is a solution, but it is not for the faint-hearted: cross disciplinary boundaries. Step from literature to linguistics, psychology to psychiatry, economics to management. Go where the favoured high-impact journals are, and submit a paper.

Some surprises are in store for the naive border-crosser. It is a culture shock of considerable proportions. And, as with all culture shocks, it makes you examine your own culture rather closely. Rudyard Kipling was right when he said: "What should they know of England who only England know?" Here is a brief guide to what intrepid cross-disciplinary explorers might expect to encounter on their travels.

Dictatorial style gurus

Some reviewers have clearly missed out on a job in quality control. They believe that there is only one way a paper can and should be presented. While every discipline has its pedants, different disciplines seem to develop distinct, evidence-free theories about the importance, relevance and necessity of particular ways of writing: masses of footnotes or none at all; the length of abstracts; "and" in some places, "&" in others; references listed alphabetically or by their logical sequence in the text. All are deemed crucially important by overzealous reviewers, who love nothing more than writing endless pages highlighting all your errors.

It is the common practice of obsessive presentation fetishists to point out that the very presence of these far-from-trivial mistakes throws into doubt every other aspect of the paper. "Are the data to be trusted if the author is so careless with his semi-colons?" they will ask; "Could any serious scholar really be so cavalier with his reference system?"; "Surely any real researcher would not overlook the necessity of following the XYZ system in presenting tables?"

No doubt there are computer programs that could fix this in a trice. But that is not the point. The quality controllers must demonstrate their knowledge of the correct way of doing things.

Madness in those methods

In the arts and humanities, and in the natural sciences, there tend to be accepted research methods. But the social sciences used to rejoice in methodological pluralism. You could take a "quant" or "qual" approach, use self-reported or observation data, and work at the individual or group level.

Over the years, however, this pluralism has given way to strict orthodoxy. At some journals now, only certain types of data may be admitted for analysis and only particular analytical methods entertained. A mixture of trends, technological advancements and the influence of powerful intellectual figures in the field pre- and proscribe how true research is to be done.

So cross the lines at your peril: if you do, you can expect a dismissive response from a breathtakingly rude reviewer pronouncing your whole paper to be prehistoric, adolescent drivel.

The sin of methodolatry is mortal. There is no way to recover. The path to enlightenment has been laid out and you are a sinner, condemned to the darkness. Your data, analysis and interpretation are trivial, wrong, puerile and a pointless waste of time.

Look beyond the giants

Some disciplines have big theories that drive research - Marxism, Darwinism or Freudianism - initiated by towering figures of the 19th and 20th centuries who still have their loyal followers. Revisionists are called neo-, post-, crypto-, anti- whatevers, but still they tend to be defined by the big idea.

But grand theories have their day. Although there are still interesting debates between Newtonians and Einsteinians, Keynesians and monetarists, between empiricists and Post-Modernists, all disciplines tend to embrace paradigmatic theories. And each theory has its own jargon and subtly nuanced language.

So it becomes a requirement to quote certain books or papers. One has to learn who is "in" and "out". Do not assume that the gods, gurus and geniuses of your discipline are recognised by others. And be prepared for the fact that some minor, obscure intellectual known only to a few of your more esoterically educated colleagues is the hero of the revolution in their world.

It's just personal opinion

Although we would nearly all like it to be otherwise, the data suggest that there is often precious little agreement among reviewers about a paper's merits unless it is seriously awful (or not in the prescribed style).

Some reviewers are grotesquely rude, hiding behind their anonymity to spew venom at helpless authors. Others are simply patronising. Some think it a fine opportunity to educate the authors about the truth. Some appear not to have read the paper at all. Occasionally, with apparently all the time in the world, some reviewers seem happy to write comments as long as, if not longer than, the original paper.

Reviewer quirkiness may be related as much to the personality of the reviewers as to their disciplines. But the disciplinary influences are there too. Some disciplines seem to care enormously about specific things: permission from ethics committees; the possibility of finding biases; even how the order of authors listed on the paper was determined.

Many academics can recall how their best-known and most often-quoted paper was initially reviewed unfavourably, or even rejected a number of times. Others speak of interventionist editors who simply ignore reviewers' comments, rejecting papers they favoured or vice versa. Or the editors, clearly unable to make up their mind, who solicit an endless list of reviewers, none of whom can agree on anything. A few authors will tell you how helpful a reviewer has been.

Unwelcome surprises

The cross-disciplinary traveller can meet with practices so odd they are almost charming. Some journals pay reviewers and some pay authors, for example.

Less charmingly, more and more charge often outrageous fees for publication under the guise of editorial and design costs, making them seem suspiciously like vanity publications.

And there can be other unexpected encounters. Some journals publish special issues where standards are changed or even dropped. Others, with an eye on impact factors, request or require you to cite other papers from the same journal.

Be an explorer

But despite the trials and tribulations, the rewards of cross-disciplinary adventures outweigh the irritations. Such forays force you to look at your own approach and consider other ways of doing things. It has always been the case that, out in the real world, problems can never be the province of just one discipline; crossing boundaries makes one see these problems anew.

So go to a conference for some different discipline or for a sub-discipline of your own field. Prepare to be perplexed by their behaviour and values, and by the revelation that a paper in some never-heard-of journal seems to confer sainthood. And then reflect on your own tribe and their oddities.

What should they know of their discipline who only their discipline know? In the old days, when people sailed across the equator, they had a party. It was a celebration of a voyage of discovery. Crossing disciplinary boundaries involves a similar experience.

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