Evaluating interdisciplinary research
(15 October 2015)
A new practical guide on how to evaluate interdisciplinary research will be officially launched by Durham University this week, aimed at providing much needed evaluation methods for research that crosses disciplines.
The collaborative project, led by Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study (IAS), involving the UK’s funding bodies, the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) and experts from other universities, has resulted in a comprehensive guide for reviewers, called Evaluating Interdisciplinary Research: a practical guide.
The free guide, available online from the Institute of Advanced Study, articulates key criteria and poses a series of questions for reviewers to use in evaluating interdisciplinary research.
It is intended to assist the assessment of research proposals, projects and outputs, as well as individual careers, and interdisciplinary institutes and centres.
The guide, written by Professor Veronica Strang, Director of the IAS and Professor Tom McLeish from the Departments of Physics and Chemistry, has been developed with a number of audiences in mind both within the UK and globally, such as research funding bodies, journal editors, book publishers, policy makers and universities themselves.
Recently described by HEFCE’s Head of Policy as ‘a strong contribution to the debate’, the publication also makes some recommendations regarding the evaluation of interdisciplinary work in national research assessment exercises, such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework.
The guide comes at a time when interdisciplinary research is expanding nationally and internationally, with increasing encouragement by funding bodies and research users. In a recent special issue on this topic, Nature observes that interdisciplinary research is becoming ‘all the rage’.
Yet, as Professor Strang explains: “The IAS initiated this project because we recognised that there is a shortage of peer reviewers with experience in evaluating interdisciplinary research, and little straightforward ‘how to’ advice for those undertaking this kind of work.
“Funding councils, government agencies and others are all struggling to find practical ways to evaluate the quality of interdisciplinary projects and outputs. We hope that our guide can assist them in meeting these challenges.”
Evaluating Interdisciplinary Research considers how to evaluate each stage of the interdisciplinary process, from the design and development of an initial project proposal through to the outputs of the research.
Professors Strang and McLeish stress that collaborating researchers need to be given time and resources to learn from each other; that they need to be thoughtful in establishing equality between disciplines; that training or facilitation might assist the process; and that it is vital to maintain strong communication at every project stage. It is only with careful navigation of the process that interdisciplinary collaboration can produce ‘more than the sum of its parts’.
Professor Strang says: “The value of interdisciplinary research lies not only in its capacity to address complex problems, but also because bringing diverse perspectives together generates exciting and original thinking. The most consistent comment from our visiting Fellows at the IAS is that intensive interdisciplinary engagement has literally ‘transformed the way they think’.”
Interdisciplinary research projects can now be found across the higher education sector, with collaborators pooling experience not only from multiple disciplines but also from practitioners and research subjects.
One such example is the Hearing the Voice project, led by Durham University academics and funded by the Wellcome Trust, which aims to help us better understand the phenomenon of hearing a voice no one else can hear.
The research team includes academics from cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, English literature, medical humanities, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology and theology; medical clinicians and arts-and-health practitioners; as well as voice-hearers themselves. Drawing on this rich array of experience, it is exploring voice-hearing in entirely new ways.
Professor Strang adds: “If we can build consensus on how to evaluate such research projects, from beginning to end, it will also help us to recognise the contribution that interdisciplinarity makes both within and beyond the research environment, and to ensure that this kind of work is fully and consistently supported.”