Postdoc Ilona Domen is looking for the key to good interdisciplinary collaboration

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It’s almost a cliché: considerable societal challenges, such as climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, can only be solved if multiple scientific disciplines work together.

That view has led interdisciplinary research to take centre stage in academia. But how does that work in practice, wondered members of the Utrecht Young Academy (UYA)?

What types of research are best suited to interdisciplinary collaboration? And what does that way of doing research truly mean for individual scientists and the quality of their work?

As it turns out, our knowledge about the promises and pitfalls of interdisciplinarity is still limited. That's why the UYA decided to appoint its own postdoc for the first time to shed more light on the subject.

 We tend to assume that others understand what we mean, but that isn’t self-evident

The position was taken by Ilona Domen, whose PhD research at UU studied the unconscious perceptions of men about women and vice versa. She used an interdisciplinary approach combining methods from social psychology and neuropsychology.

“Above all, I was enthusiastic about the prospect of my research helping the Utrecht Young Academy to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration”, Domen told DUB through MS Teams.

As part of her PhD, she attended a summer school in Edinburgh, where more than fifty PhD candidates discussed the possibilities and limitations of research that goes beyond disciplines' boundaries. “That’s when I realised how much we can learn from each other, not to mention how quickly we tend to assume that someone will understand what we mean, while that isn’t self-evident at all when everyone’s got different backgrounds.”

Interdisciplinarity is one way to find an answer to a question – not the only way

Domen was given a lot of freedom to conduct her research. She decided to focus on the experiences of UU researchers. “I want to know to what extent they’re already conducting interdisciplinary research. Do they do both interdisciplinary research and monodisciplinary research, or do they prefer to do only one of them exclusively? What hurdles do they face? How can UU help?”

ilonadomen.jpgIlona Domen is the first and, so far, the only postdoc appointed by the Utrecht Young Academy, a group of ambitious and talented researchers connected to Utrecht University. Her research delves into the pros and cons of interdisciplinary work. Domen's survey (in English) was sent to UU employees last week, while employees of UMC Utrecht are going to receive it this week. Domen hopes to interpret the results this summer and finalise an advisory report to send to the Executive Board by autumn.

Domen emphasises that she doesn’t assume all UU researchers should conduct interdisciplinary research. “It’s one way to find an answer to a question – not the only way. I think researchers should find joy in satisfying their curiosity. Monodisciplinary isn’t subordinate to interdisciplinary. Besides, you have to be quite strong in your discipline in order to contribute to interdisciplinary collaborations.”

At the same time, she too sees there are more and more incentives and encouragements for scientists to conduct interdisciplinary research. Collaboration between scientific disciplines is a requirement for many grants and subsidies. The university itself has organised its research in interdisciplinary strategic themes, and stimulates scientists to collaborate with colelagues from different backgrounds through the so-called ‘seed money’.

Domen: “That’s part of the survey as well: are we collaborating as a result of internal deliberations or external ones? I personally suspect people’s own motivation is still the deciding factor. If you truly wish to work in a different way, you might try and find funding elsewhere.”

Especially for young researchers, it’s good to know what the choice for a certain type of research will mean for their careers

However, Domen does want to know whether scientists who conduct interdisciplinary research actually feel as though their efforts are appreciated. That question related to recent discussions in academia about new ways to recognise and reward scientists.

In this new way of thinking about academic careers, one of the most common assumptions is that publications and impact factors should no longer be the ultimate goal. The value of other contributions and research products should also be rewarded, especially if they have great societal impact. Interdisciplinary collaboration tends to focus more on this type of results, like advising or intervening in policy-making, or coming up with classes and workshops.

“We wonder if scientists are satisfied with the recognition they receive, regardless of whether they conduct monodisciplinary or interdisciplinary research. If that’s not the case, then the next question is if they have found any solutions for this, or perhaps they have suggestions. Especially for young researchers, it’s good to know what the choice for a certain type of research will mean for their careers and how they can deal with that.”

The survey's questions avoid the endless discussion in academia about what interdisciplinary research is exactly, and how it differs from multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research. She chose to use the term ‘multidisciplinary’, which refers to the other methods as well.

It’s a group process, people forget that sometimes

The UYA researcher is convinced that interdisciplinary collaboration comes with different obstacles than monodisciplinary work. In order to create a sound survey, Domen conducted elaborate literature review. She also talked to researchers and policymakers at the university, a phase for which was a trial with the members of the Young Academy.

That will help her to get an idea of the challenges researchers face when they seek to collaborate outside the boundaries of their disciplines. It often takes more time and more organisation skills than first assumed. This type of research is also more difficult to publish, considering the lack of journals, editors, and reviewers. Last but not least, they have to enjoy it to make it work. Characteristics like flexibility, creativity, and being open to different points of view go a long way.

The postdoc also teaches workshops, where she gives advice based on the knowledge she’s gained so far. “One thing I see quite often is that all researchers involved in a project are focused on the most efficient way to handle something. But it’s also a group process, people forget that sometimes. You really need to learn to collaborate, learn to speak each other’s language. That takes time.”

Domen says research teams should, at the very least, organise a few meetings at the start of the project and meet each other a number of times throughout the process as well. It's not enough to only talk to each other by e-mail. She mentions a few points on which clarity and agreement are necessary.

“Discuss the expectations. What do you expect from the others? What do you expect of the project? What’s the goal? How do you intend to achieve it? It's important to do that, especially if some of the people involved are from outside the university. After all, people have different views on what success means and how to achieve it effectively.”

“Talk about all the definitions in the research question. Are they clear to everyone? Also mention how much time you can spend on a project and when you're available. If you’re not working at the same location, collaborations can take a lot of time, which often leads to frustration.”

Does Domen feel that researchers already work in this manner? “No, not always. Scientists never have enough time. If you say: first, we’re going to talk for five hours… that just isn’t always feasible. It’s also difficult if you’re collaborating with different disciplines, within and outside your own university, often internationally.”

“Bespreek ook alle definities in de onderzoeksvraag. Zijn die voor iedereen duidelijk? En vertel ook eerlijk hoeveel tijd je in een project kunt stoppen en wanneer. Als je niet op dezelfde plek werkt, kan samenwerken veel tijd kosten en daardoor tot frustratie leiden.”

Heeft Domen het idee dat onderzoekers dat nu al zo aanpakken? “Nee, niet altijd. Wetenschappers hebben nooit genoeg tijd. Als je zegt: we gaan eerst vijf uur praten dan lukt dat vaak gewoon niet. Het is ook lastig als je samenwerkt met verschillende disciplines, binnen en buiten je eigen universiteit, vaak ook internationaal.”

People have different views on what success means and how to achieve it effectively

She’s curious to see which needs the interdisciplinary scientists will mention in the survey. She expects some of them will be about chanfes to the system. “Having more journals that accept articles on interdisciplinary research, for example. Or more recognition for the research output of interdisciplinary work, considering the new methods to recognise and reward scientists.”

But she also wonders how the university can help as an employer. In the trial phase she conducted with 25 UYA members, many respondents stated they would like to see more encourament from leadership, as well as more career opportunities for scientists conducting interdisciplinary research. They would also appreciate more investments in the development of competencies, less administrative work in collaborations between different faculties, and more involvement from support staff in the projects. But Domen emphasises that the trial was a small sample.

After analysing the results of the survey, she’ll also hold additional interviews: “It would be great if this study leads to a situation where people who want to start interdisciplinary research are aware of what they can encounter. I also hope I’ll be able to show how researchers who have been working this way for a while solve certain issues, so others don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Researchers from UU and UMC Utrecht can find the survey here.