Human Science

New paper argues for a bigger focus on the social factors that can make or break interdisciplinary teams in the social, national and computational sciences.

December 14, 2015
Getty Images

Science has become much more collaborative and interdisciplinary in recent decades. With that has come some research about what makes a successful interdisciplinary team. But so far, what little research there is on the topic has largely ignored the more human elements of group science across disciplinary lines (although some have called for more such research). A new paper proposes a framework for thinking about how scholars from different backgrounds collaborate and argues that the psychological aspects of that work merit attention.

The paper is based on extensive interviews with researchers in nine major networks in the social, natural and computational sciences funded by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the MacArthur Foundation and the Santa Fe Institute. Identifying patterns among the researchers' responses, the authors determined how scientists involved in interdisciplinary projects define success and what factors they think contribute to achievement.

"Shared Cognitive-Emotional-Interactional Platforms: Markers and Conditions for Successful Interdisciplinary Collaborations," published in Science, Technology and Human Values, concludes that successful collaboration among those in the social and natural sciences doesn’t necessarily amount to traditional measures of achievement, such as citations. Rather, success to researchers often means meaningful relationships that can create feelings of belonging, respect and admiration -- factors that the paper's authors say strongly influence creativity and productivity.

“Interdisciplinary research is now receiving large amounts of funding from governmental and other sources,” said co-author Michèle Lamont, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of European Studies and professor of sociology and African and African-American studies at Harvard University, and director of its Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. “Yet there is very little empirical work on what makes it work or not. One takeaway from our paper is that we must pay heed to the way interactions and emotions shape the production of knowledge -- rather than limiting our perspective by focusing solely on the cognitive when we measure success.”

Lamont and her co-authors, Veronica Boix Mansilla, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Kyoko Sato, associate director of the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Stanford University, propose a new analytical construct for thinking about interdisciplinary team science success: that of a shared cognitive-emotional-interactional platform.

Such a construct captures the “multidimensional processes of interdisciplinary collaboration” and refers to a “collaboratively constructed and shared ‘platform’ that serves as both a space in which researchers practically engage one another to work on a common problem and as a basis that organizes their behaviors and activities,” the paper reads.

In this shared space, it continues, “researchers define problems to study, exchange expertise, build personal relations, project and maintain academic self-concepts, and yoke for status; what they create together constitutes a basis that shapes how they collaborate with each other -- such as shared language, key concepts, tacit rules of interaction, group culture and identity, and collective mission. … Interactions unfold at the intersection of what is being studied, who is studying and what kinds of emotional dynamics are at play.”

The paper attempts to demonstrate the platform’s value as a lens for such analyses, arguing that markers and conditions for successful work embody three different dimensions, the cognitive, emotional and interactional. The authors say these dimensions are present and intertwined in all networks, to different degrees, and that they interface with other institutional conditions created by those funding the research.

Lamont and her collaborators selected the three research institutions studied based on their strong interdisciplinary profiles. Though they all offer strong material support for such research, they also differ in significant ways, such as how they put their teams together and expectations. One funder promoted the pursuit of “big questions,” for example, and another encouraged outcomes that have a visible impact in society. Each of the nine research networks studied had existed for one to eight years when the interviews took place, and included eight to 15 members from at least three different disciplines. Network topics included what makes successful societies, urban growth and social dynamics, geochemical origins of life, and adolescent development and juvenile justice. The authors say that even when the number of respondents in each network was small, they could still identify the differences and similarities across networks, given the extensiveness of their cases studies of each.

The authors considered five kinds of data: the semistructured interviews with researchers on markers and conditions for success; information on the researchers available on the Internet, such as publications, institutional affiliations, biographies and academic interests; full publications, especially those written in collaboration with network members or concerning the network’s main research topic; observations of five networks’ meetings; and questionnaires completed by the researchers about their involvement in the network, the perceived dynamics of the group and their efforts to integrate disciplines and structures for support.

The interviews, conducted with 75 network members typically in the weeks immediately following a network meeting, concerned researchers’ experiences with collaboration and their objectives, and how they defined success and what they felt contributed to it.

The majority of respondents (56 percent) said funders’ effective investment contributed to success. The (unspecified) funder that encourages “big questions” type research, for example, doesn’t require specific “deliverables,” but its members are aware that they’re expected to produce significant research, and that that requires several meetings per year. Its long-term funding approach affords network members the “luxury of gradually zeroing in on shared problems of study, instead of starting with a narrow research proposal with predefined objectives,” the paper says. Members of another network that focused at the behest of funders on real-world impact was also effective, in that members of the network tended to share that goal. The third funder took a “venture capital” approach that encouraged researchers to push beyond their intellectual comfort zones, to the benefit of the network.

But the cognitive, emotional and interactional aspects of researchers’ experiences also were important. As one respondent said, “I strongly believe that a common language needs to be developed within any group undertaking interdisciplinary research. … The key in our group is that the main directors are willing to let go of the reins and let the group discover questions, topics and criticisms of research. There is no domineering personality or ‘research turf’ needing defending.”

Across networks, most researchers (67 percent) described quality of cross-disciplinary exchange as a cognitive marker of success. Other top cognitive markers include the project’s intellectual "generativity," or spark, beyond its formal purpose and funding period; the development of shared intellectual tools that serve as the common ground for exchange; excellence and relevance of the disciplinary expertise contributing to the collaborative research; and knowledge advancement through integrating disciplinary perspectives.

For example, a pediatrician highlighted for the authors the complementary nature of the different disciplines feeding a project.

“The [network was mostly] serious neurobiologists, right?” the pediatrician said. “And we had people who study human attachment …. [We had the] right developmental psychologists, who studied fully social development, [and] who would then be interested in [the] brain.”

Over all, 82 percent of respondents mentioned cognitive factors at least once.

Emotional markers mattered, too, to researchers’ interpretations of success. “They discussed pleasure in revisiting topics of long-term interest through a new lens or in experiencing the ‘steep learning curve’ in learning another discipline,” the paper says. More than half (58 percent) of researchers mentioned collective intellectual excitement resulting from commitment to the collaboration as important to success, and 28 percent mentioned the “joy” of collaboration itself.

“It was a very compatible group,” one respondent said. “I think everyone liked each other and the meetings were enjoyable, and it was really quite collegial, and also, just a sort of socially compatible group. … It was just of a lot of fun.”

As for interactional markers, 77 percent of respondents mentioned their importance at least once. More than half (53 percent) highlighted their groups’ growing competency for deliberation and learning from each other, and 32 percent mentioned the development of meaningful social relations with group members.

The collaboration “allowed me to establish deep and lasting interactions with the members of the network,” one respondent said. “Because I know their research very deeply and I know where it interfaces with mine, and because I’m very comfortable in talking with and interacting with these people, it really has opened up these paths of communication with people in areas of research that I would normally have no contact with.”

Specific interactional factors mentioned include climate and conviviality (53 percent), the social-interactive qualities of participants, such as sociability and communication styles (51 percent), and effective leadership (49 percent).

The paper notes that even as they interact with institutional factors, the cognitive, emotional and interactional aspects of this work are intertwined. One respondent mentioned, for example, that socializing over cognitive work “creates occasions for casual conversations about the substances that may then inform the more formal conversations.” And in another example, one respondent said the level of excitement for the collaborative process helped elevate the work.

Lamont, the author of the 2009 book How Professors Think: Inside the Curious World of Academic Judgment, and director and fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, has long studied how knowledge -- including interdisciplinary knowledge -- is created. Based on her work, she said, she “intuitively understood” that the more human aspects of science would impact a team’s success. But she was initially surprised by the degree to which it mattered based on her results. However, she added, “looking back at my own experience, it makes sense.”

Asked if the research might also be applicable to group science within the same discipline, given that personalities impact work even among researchers with shared backgrounds, Lamont said she felt it was most helpful for scientists who have to build bridges between fields and push beyond their comfort zones. Group science presents various challenges, interdisciplinary or not -- scientists from the same field working together on a project may feel a sense of competition, for example, she said -- but the paper demonstrates how feelings such as excitement and interactional factors such as good leadership can help those from different fields achieve more.

Lamont also said she thought her more qualitative data would survive the scrutiny of scientists who are more inclined to draw on quantitative methods, and that any lingering skepticism spoke to the main point of the paper: that scientists need to be more aware of how who’s doing the science under what circumstances can make or break a team effort.

“We need to take into account these experiences and continue to study these social phenomena,” she said.

Neil L. Gross, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology at Colby College, whose work spans philosophy, intellectual history and political science, has previously collaborated with Lamont. He said that the new paper must be considered preliminary, since the authors only studied successful collaborative networks -- something the paper acknowledges -- but that he thought it was nevertheless a “promising and helpful approach.”

Interdisciplinary networks can be organized any number of ways, Gross said, but given the “importance of these networks for problem solving today, it’s urgent that we figure out the organizational patterns that work best.”

The paper’s focus on cognitive, emotional and interactional dynamics “seems right on to me, and highlights aspects of successful collaboration that social scientists -- and science policy makers -- haven’t thought about enough,” he said.


Back to Top