Collaboration in research a 'tick-box' trick

August 31, 2007

Geographer sparks debate over whether interdisciplinary work is really valuable or just an exercise to win funding. Rebecca Attwood reports

Academics' moves to collaborate on research across different disciplines are in danger of becoming a shallow "paint by numbers" exercise, a conference will hear this week.

The benefits and problems associated with interdisciplinary work were due to be debated at the Royal Geographical Society's annual conference as The Times Higher went to press, amid increased funding opportunities for collaborative research.

In "Interdisciplinarity and geography: Holy Grail or reality?", a paper to be presented to the conference, Sarah Damery, a research associate at Birmingham University, argues that attempts at interdisciplinarity in her area of geography have often been less than successful and "interdisciplinarity is in danger of becoming simply a 'paint by numbers' exercise".

She warns that interdisciplinary research teams risk being "assembled largely to tick required boxes on research grant applications rather than with the aim of conducting truly interdisciplinary research".

Meg Huby, senior lecturer in social policy at York University, argues that interdisciplinary research, when it is done properly, can be demanding of time, patience and resources but is worth the effort because it produces better results.

"The need for team visits and face-to-face contact means that a good interdisciplinary project can take longer, but everyone seemed to feel that the time they put into it was very worthwhile," Dr Huby said.

Her research found the key ingredients for a successful interdisciplinary project included committed leadership, a clear conceptual framework, a good atmosphere of trust and respect, and excellent communication, including using plain language and avoiding academic jargon, and holding regular meetings.

"What is really important is that interdisciplinary work can add value by informing the kinds of research questions that are asked, by producing more integrated and comprehensive research findings and by strengthening links between research and policy."

But for early-career researchers, choosing to focus on interdisciplinary work can sometimes harm career prospects, especially because it can be harder to get such work published.

Geoff Whitman, a research associate in the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University, said: "New interdisciplinary journals are emerging, but I'm not sure whether these journals currently have the same academic standing as the more established disciplinary journals."

Dr Whitman, a social scientist on the interdisciplinary Rural Economy and Land Use Programme, has found different levels of acceptance among ecologists on the benefits of working with social scientists. He said: "My personal view is that it is a very positive way of examining complex issues."

Frances Harris, a senior lecturer in environment and natural resource management at Kingston University, has surveyed researchers taking part in interdisciplinary projects and found cases of researchers being advised not to pursue interdisciplinary research if they wanted to secure promotion.


  • Geography students are increasingly enrolling on traditionally field-based degree courses with either no prior experience of fieldwork or with very little interest in it, according to Alison Stokes of Plymouth University. Dr Stokes and her team are trying to understand students' motivations and attitudes.
  • A stream of papers titled "Geographies of sex itself" will address "geography's 'squeamishness'".
  • Have teenagers become a "lost generation" for the great outdoors? This will be examined by Catharine Ward Thompson of Edinburgh College of Art in a session on how ethnic minorities and young people are under-represented outdoors.
  • "Enchanting" geographies is the theme of one stream of papers, which include "Patio poetics: the prosaic pleasures of the domestic garden", and "Taxidermy as a technology of enchantment".

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