Why Inter-Disciplinary Research is Cursed

Inter-disciplinary research is all the rage these days. Investigating a research problem through the lens of a single discipline is simply not enough to get a full understanding of “what’s going on,” or so we are told. Funding bodies want to see cross-disciplinary collaborations to solve complex problems before committing cash to a project. Journals call for multi-faceted papers that approach the problem from many different angles. We are led to believe that the academic silos are passé.

This commitment to inter-disciplinarity is all very well in theory, but unfortunately it increases the chances of failure in peer review. In my experience, submitting a truly inter-disciplinary manuscript to a top journal places you at greater risk of rejection than a paper written from a single disciplinary perspective.

Moreover, I would argue that inter-disciplinarity is not only a liability in the social sciences and the humanities, but also in the natural sciences. Each field of study has its own theoretical and methodological idiosyncrasies that make it difficult to “blend” them together seemlessly.

It is ironic. Approaching a problem from multiple perspectives is, proverbially, thinking outside the box. Even if a journal editor, upon screening a submission, appreciates the unique approach you take, chances are that the reviewers won’t. Why? Because they’ve been trained in a “Department of [fill in the blank]” and are therefore biased in favor of their own epistemology.

“This commitment to inter-disciplinarity is all very well in theory, but unfortunately it increases the chances of failure in peer review.”

I am frequently constrained by reviewers’ disciplinary boundaries. I was trained as an economic sociologist, but mostly do organizational psychology these days. My methods are largely experimental and my conceptual framework often centers around evolutionary psychology. This unusual “intersection” of disciplines, I think, adds value to our understanding of organizational behavior. But I frequently end up with desk rejects that say something like: “Interesting paper, but this is not a good fit for our journal.”

Even when I make it into peer review, I often get comments like: “This is biology. Why are you submitting to a management journal?” or “This is management. Why are you submitting to a biology journal?” Another problem is that different disciplines employ different methodologies. Economists don’t like it when I use latent variables because they don’t understand them. Psychologists don’t like it when I use instrumental variables because they don’t understand them. Economists and psychologists don’t like it when I use qualitative data because they don’t understand them. Sociologists don’t like it when I use experimental methods because they don’t understand them.

I am of the view that truly inter-disciplinary studies add the most value to our understanding of the world, but they are also the most likely to be rejected because they don’t conform to “the way we do things.” This is important for early career researchers to understand because a commitment to inter-disciplinarity can jeoparidize your chances of tenure. It’s a pity that we are confined (and punished) by disciplinary boundaries despite near universal recognition that inter-disciplinarity is best. But that’s academia for you!

Professor Andrew R. Timming
Editor-in-Chief
http://dire-ed.com

This article is published under a Creative Commons 4.0 License.

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