Keeping an Open Mind

New paper suggests researchers who are more open to other disciplines and worldviews produce higher-quality research. 

May 6, 2016
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Many scientists take a certain pride in the objective nature of their work. The data are the data, no matter who’s conducting the experiment. But growing body of research suggests that’s not necessarily true, and that personalities can influence the science.

A new study builds on that notion, suggesting that one’s “transdisciplinary orientation,” a personal quality predisposing one to engage in cross-disciplinary work, can affect the quality of interdisciplinary research -- good or bad.

“Scholars reporting higher levels of [transdisciplinary orientation] produced scientific outputs that were judged to be more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary in nature as rated by independent evaluators -- that is, they were more successful in synthesizing concepts, ideas or methods from multiple disciplines and extending behavioral routines exemplifying a [transdisciplinary orientation],” the paper says.

Moreover, it argues, transdisciplinary-oriented researchers also produced “scientific outputs that were judged to have greater translational, policy and practical relevance.”

Past experience in interdisciplinary teams was significantly and positively correlated with a such an orientation in the study.

“The Transdisciplinary Orientation Scale: Factor Structure and Relation to the Integrative Quality and Scope of Scientific Publications” was recently published in the Journal of Translational Medicine. The paper expands on earlier research on transdisciplinary orientation involving teams of scientists by seeking to establish a metric to assess individual researchers’ transdisciplinary orientation. That’s important because recent studies have emphasized the role of individual scientists’ transdisciplinary orientation in team success, according to the study.

“A clear understanding of the personal qualities that constitute an individual’s [orientation] and how [it] can be calibrated is crucial for guiding educational and training efforts designed to promote the next generation of students’ and scholars’ engagement in cross-disciplinary collaborative research. Further, large-scale team science ventures could benefit from optimizing the design and management of the team to maximize their potential for success,” the paper reads.

The Transdisciplinary Orientation Scale rates researchers based on what have previously been identified as transdisciplinary values, attitudes and beliefs and behaviors and conceptual skills and knowledge. Values include appreciating the importance of collaborative research and accepting worldviews and paradigms different from one’s own. Behaviors include reading books and journals from outside one’s discipline.

Study participants were asked to fill out a 12-question transdisciplinary orientation survey, agreeing or disagreeing along a spectrum with such statements as “My research to date reflects my openness to diverse disciplinary perspectives when analyzing particular problems,” and “I generally approach scientific problems from a multilevel perspective that encompasses both micro- and macro-level factors.”

Some 76 randomly selected professors from across disciplines at a large research institution completed the survey (223 were asked to participate, after a separate, initial study of 150 researchers in a different sample to iron out the instrument). The authors then analyzed the relationship between their answers or scores and a variety of other factors, looking for the effect of transdisciplinary orientation on their research. Participants who reported higher levels of orientation were rated to be significantly more interdisciplinary by independent raters of their work. Higher self-reported levels also were significantly and positively correlated with independent ratings of the potential societal impact of the research reported in a randomly selected journal article.

Transdisciplinary orientation was also positively but marginally related to independent ratings of creativity and intellectual quality of the scholars’ work. There was no significant relationship between scores and the number of disciplines mentioned or implied in the research, or the scientific impact.

The study was written by Shalina Misra, an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech; Dan Stokols, Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus of social ecology at the University of California at Irvine; and Lulu Cheng, a researcher with Monsanto.

The authors don’t suggest that transdisciplinary orientation is a fixed trait, and that those who don’t have it can’t develop it. Rather, they suggest that curricula and short- and longer-term training can help students and scholars grow their capacity for such work, attitudes and behaviors. Information about one’s current orientation also can be drawn on to design cross-disciplinary science teams for maximum success, they note.

Misra said told Inside Higher Ed that that it’s important to continue to challenge and critique the “dominant narrative” that science is 100 percent objective. That’s especially relevant in the context of team science, she said, because as more and more resources are being funneled to large scale cross-disciplinary team science, the more important it becomes “to understand under what conditions and contexts these teams can thrive and produce work that transcends disciplines, develops creative theories and methods, and is able to translate science to practical outcomes.”

Because existing research points to dysfunction and conflict inherent in team endeavors, “goal would be to align the conditions needed for effective team science,” Misra said. Those include personal traits, training in conceptual skills, leadership experience, group processes, institutional incentive structures, and physical and technological environmental factors.

Veronica Boix Mansilla, a lecturer in education at Harvard University who has studied how scholars collaborate and combine disciplinary approaches, said she thought the new paper's focus on "orientation" was promising. "All too often interdisciplinary synthesis is taught as a skill," Boix Mansilla said via email. "An emphasis on orientation (or as we call it 'dispositions') speaks to more long-lasting and transformative preparation for your scholars."


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