Extending Ecology – 10 Tips for Interdisciplinary Research

As in nature, its often beneficial for researchers with very different perspectives to bring their distinct backgrounds together (Image Credit: Rickard Zerpe, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Guest post by Rachel Kelly of the Centre for Marine Socioecology, Tasmania.

Collaboration with other disciplines and knowledges is central to ecology’s capacity to contribute to addressing sustainability challenges in our world today. Interdisciplinary research involves different disciplines working together to integrate their knowledges and methods to meet shared research goals and achieve a real synthesis of approaches. It connects previously disconnected ideas, concepts and resources, and can be a rewarding experience to share collective interest in learning and understanding new perspectives.

Interdisciplinarity in ecology has seen a surge over the last few decades, with statistics, chemistry, and increasingly the social sciences starting to integrate with ecological knowledge to give us a more holistic few of ecosystems. Interdisciplinary approaches are key to enabling us to not only solve many of the ecological questions we’re now grappling with, but also to effectively communicate those solutions to managers, policy makers, and the broader public.

But, it’s hard. Conducting interdisciplinary research is limited by many challenges and barriers, including:

  1. Resources. Interdisciplinary research means combining diverse disciplinary concepts and methods. This demands time and resources, which can be a limiting factor for many researchers.
  2. Language barriers. These diverse concepts are explained in disciplinary ‘languages’, which can cause confusion that generates stress and tensions in interdisciplinary teams.
  3. Structural hurdles. Researchers can be reluctant to engage with interdisciplinary research, because they do not receive the same recognition that they would from their home disciplines (or from institutes and funding bodies either).
  4. Tokenism. Lots of researchers purport to be conducting interdisciplinary programmes but in reality, have not included all disciplinary perspectives from inception. A common problem in interdisciplinary research is this ‘token’ inclusion of a researcher from a different discipline (often, from the social sciences) after the research programme has been designed.
  5. Lack of guidance. As interdisciplinary research is often developed to address contextual problems and issues, approaches vary and as such, guidance for how to successfully engage in interdisciplinarity is poorly available for early career researchers.

In our paper, we wanted to provide guidance for people (particularly early-career researchers) engaging, or wishing to engage, in interdisciplinary research. We, a group of four early-career researchers from the Centre for Marine Socioecology in Tasmania, conducted interviews with 13 interdisciplinary experts from around the world. These experts then worked with us on our combined analysis of these insights and together, we developed 10 tips to guide early career researchers (and others) to improve their understanding and practice of interdisciplinarity.

The 10 Tips

The first eight tips focus on informing and developing the individual researcher:

  1. Develop an area of expertise – A core grounding shapes your research identity and will guide your ability to contribute and engage in interdisciplinary collaborations.
  2. Learn new languages – Strive to express your research in ways that are clear and understandable to others outside of your discipline or expertise.
  3. Be open-minded – Consciously be open to learning and new ways of doing things, particularly to engage in collaborations that include knowledges that are new to you.
  4. Be patient – Establishing and conducting interdisciplinary research takes time, and lots of it! Allocate time in the research process for iterative stages of learning, communicating and shared reflection.
  5. Embrace complexity – Interdisciplinary research is integrative and brings people together to combine their collective expertise. Collaborations should include input from all members of the research team. Always remember that every researcher can make a valid contribution.
  6. Collaborate widely – Ditch your ego in interdisciplinary research, collaborative approaches demand the ability to work and get along with others.
  7. Push your boundaries – Make attempts, big and small, to get beyond your comfort zone. Expose yourself to new perspectives, opinions and novel ideas.
  8. Consider if you will engage in interdisciplinary research – Interdisciplinary careers are not necessary, or necessarily appealing, to everyone, and disciplinary research will continue to play an important role. Consider what’s the best approach for you and your career goals.

The last two tips focus at the leadership and research culture levels.

  1. Foster interdisciplinary culture – Give others freedom to work and think across disciplinary borders. In particular, research leaders can provide and foster space for interdisciplinary projects to be discussed and developed.

  2. Champion interdisciplinary researchers – Great interdisciplinary research deserves recognition akin to single-disciplinary research. Research leaders and institutions can create opportunities (and reduce barriers) by recognising excellent interdisciplinary research.

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Visualisation of Rachel’s team’s 10 tips for interdisciplinary research (Image Credit: Stacey McCormack at McCork Studios @McCorkStudios, CC BY-NC 3.0)

To read the initial paper, you can follow the link below:

Ten tips for developing interdisciplinary socio-ecological researchers, by Rachel Kelly et al., Socio-Ecological Practice Research, 2019.

Rachel Kelly is a researcher at the Centre for Marine Socioecology in Tasmania working to improve public engagement with the ocean and marine science. Her research focuses on the human dimensions of marine conservation, and includes inter- and transdisciplinary concepts including social licence, ocean literacy, marine citizenship and citizen science. You can follow her on Twitter here and LinkedIn here.

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