Interdisciplinarity and Productivity

In a blog post at the London School of Economics, University of Arizona Sociology Professor Erin Leahey describes some of her recent work on the costs and benefits of interdisciplinary research for productivity and impact metrics in science. The basic pattern is that interdisciplinary work tends to receive more citations (a common metric used to judge “impact”), but tends to lead to fewer publications (a common metric used to judge “productivity”).

She goes on to describe her efforts with her coauthors to discover the source of this productivity penalty. They found no evidence that interdisciplinary work has a harder time in the review and publication process than traditional disciplinary work. Rather, the cost seems to be in the additional effort required to actually do the interdisciplinary work.

IDR could also stifle productivity because the process of producing interdisciplinary scholarship—learning new concepts, literatures, and techniques, working with a diverse group of collaborators—is challenging. We find that IDR projects do indeed face these hurdles. Scholars who engage in ‘repeat collaborations’ with the same set (or subset) of authors experience a smaller productivity penalty than we see overall, so scholars do become accustomed to working with their coauthors (regardless of field). Survey responses from a small sub-sample of these scholars reveal that interdisciplinary teams have more difficulty generating ideas, and their communication is less clear, more difficult, and lower quality. Last, because our theory suggests that it is challenging to incorporate different ideas into a single paper, multidisciplinary scholars (who publish separate papers on distinct topics) likely do not face production penalties. Indeed, our results show that scholars conducting multidisciplinary research are more productive, not less.

This resonates with my own experience. When working on a project in your own field, it is easy to underestimate just how much you rely on deep experience. Engaging in a meaningful interdisciplinary collaboration requires a lot of remedial education.

Of course, this is not to say that you should shy away from interdisciplinary work. I’d say it is one more reason why hiring and promotion committees should be wary of publication counting.

The study can be found here:

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