Risks, Rewards of Crossing Disciplines

Interdisciplinary research comes at the expense of productivity.

UNIVERSITIES INCREASINGLY ARE encouraging their faculty to move beyond their individual specialties to engage in collaborative interdisciplinary research (IDR). This trend is driven by the belief that today's business problems are so complex that solutions can be generated only by diverse perspectives. But are there academic risks to interdisciplinary collaboration?

Erin Leahey of the University of Arizona's School of Sociology in Tuscon, Christine Beckman of the University of Mary­ land's Smith School of Business in College Park, and Taryn Stanko of California Polytechnic State University's Orfalea College of Business in San Luis Obispo recently studied how crossing disciplines might affect an academic's productivity. They analyzed 32,000 articles published by 854 academics up to the year 2005, as well as a set of their unpublished papers. Of this group, 80 percent were in science or engineering; the rest, from math, computer science, or the social sciences.

Leahey, Beckman, and Stanko assigned each paper an IDR score and found that the authors of papers with the highest IDR scores wrote fewer papers overall. This effect intensified as the number of co-authors increased. Leahey, Beckman, and Stanko call this effect a "productivity penalty."

Such a penalty, they argue, could deter young faculty members from engaging in IDR, particularly those pursuing tenure. But young faculty also should keep in mind that high-IDR papers often received more citations than low-IDR papers. This effect remained even though Leahey, Beckman, and Stanko did not include in their analysis papers published in popular peer-reviewed journals such as Science and Nature, which receive greater attention, to avoid skewing the results. That said, authors of papers with high IDR scores had more variability in their success for every high-impact paper, others disappear without much fanfare.

The co-authors note that while academics who emphasize IDRmight suffer a productivity penalty, they also reap benefits such as greater visibility in the academic community. Leahey, Beckman, and Stanko believe that further research on the career outcomes of these academics could shed even more light on the risks and rewards of interdisciplinary research.

"Prominent but less productive: the impact of interdisciplinarity on scientists' research" was published in the March issue of Administrative Science Quarterly. It's available at journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0001839216665364.