Young scientist discussing with colleague in lab

Breaching the Interdisciplinary Divide

How to establish a collaboration with people you don’t know performing research you’re unfamiliar with

Rachel Brown, MSc

Interdisciplinary collaboration drives scientific progress and innovation—birthing new technology, new branches of science, and answers to complex research questions. It plays a critical role in addressing many of the world’s most urgent issues, like climate change and disease research. In recognition of this, funding agencies and institutions are increasingly supporting cross-disciplinary research. Growing numbers of interdisciplinary journals are expanding publication opportunities for such teams.

Though the infrastructure, support, and interest has largely come into place, forming the relationships on which this work depends is still a barrier for many. Finding potential collaborators, forming effective teams, and building a common understanding present unique challenges when breaching cultural divides. Here are some guidelines to establishing successful interdisciplinary collaborations.

How to find interdisciplinary collaborators

Finding potential collaborators within one’s own discipline is relatively straightforward. Broad familiarity between labs performing similar research is bolstered by networking at conferences. Language, knowledge base, and traditions are shared within a research community, facilitating connections between labs and individuals.

Branching out to other disciplines can be more challenging. Disciplines have unique research cultures, methodologies, language, and paradigms. The more distant the field, the less accessible it seems. How do you find and approach new potential collaborators outside of your knowledge base?

Where to look

If you have an interdisciplinary project in mind, you likely already know what other disciplines need to be involved. Finding potential collaborators in those fields is mostly legwork. Scan the literature on related research, attend conferences, seminars, or workshops in your target disciplines, and/or check with your existing network for recommendations. Look for researchers with complimentary skills and expertise, broad interests, and a history of collaborative work. Scanning their CV, publication record, and LinkedIn can help fill in those details. Reviewing other social media can also give some early insight into whether they’re a match in terms of values, research goals, and personality.

Introductions

Prepare ideas and goals before you contact potential collaborators. What do you want to accomplish with this collaboration? What is the end product? How do their skills and expertise fit into the project? What do you bring to the table? How does the proposed work contribute to or build on their existing body of work?

Meet with potential collaborators a few times to discuss the project and explore compatibility before committing.

Present potential collaborators with a brief, clear, and specific proposal, preferably with potential funding sources. “I would like to work with you on [project] to accomplish [goal].” Center their work in your approach, include desired impact and outcomes, and be specific about how your own skills and expertise can contribute. Stay flexible, open-minded, and listen—this proposal just provides a starting point for discussion. Though the proposal will evolve, coming prepared establishes your goals and demonstrates your potential as a partner.

Meet with potential collaborators a few times to discuss the project and explore compatibility before committing. Assumptions populate every discipline, many of which will only surface through extensive conversations. Airing them is key to preventing misunderstandings down the road. One place to start is discussing what success looks like for each of you. How will you measure success, e.g., number of publications or translational application of results? 

Expected research and publication timelines for the different approaches should also be compared. Depending on data sources and workflows, one approach may take substantially longer than another. How much work needs to be completed before any portion of it is published? 

Expectations around publications should be discussed since they impact careers and publication styles and cultures vary drastically. Consider what publications would be targeted and ensure everyone is comfortable with what that entails. Include who is listed as an author, how order is determined, whether or how full datasets will be published, who will maintain and store data and where, and whether manuscripts can or should be pre-released. 

This is also the time to assess compatibility beyond research focus. To form an effective team, you will need to work closely with open, regular communication. How do work habits vary between the groups? What are expectations around communication modes, response times, and availability? You need to establish a positive interpersonal relationship with your collaborators—liking them and enjoying working with them helps. Mutual respect is vital to success and encompasses understanding and appreciating the value of each person’s skills, expertise, and contributions. You can also vet potential collaborators by reaching out to previous and current collaborators.

List of what is needed for a successful collaboration
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Defining a new culture

A prolonged start-up or trial phase allows collaborators to establish connections, communication, and an understanding and appreciation of each role. Interdisciplinary collaborations require an integration of cultures, languages, and knowledges that ultimately forms something new. Taking time for comprehensive discussions early on will help build rapport and trust. It also provides an opportunity to address differences in a constructive manner. Regular reflection on events, feelings, and actions can help to highlight a team’s strengths and opportunities for improvement, leading to improved efficacy, learning, and cohesion.

You can encourage familiarity and camaraderie by creating space for joint social initiatives and planning in-person meetings or retreats when possible. Camaraderie promotes insight, risk-taking, and experimentation, all key to scientific endeavors1.  

Developing a project roadmap

Discussing and agreeing on a well-defined team purpose provides motivation and helps build cohesion and consensus. The group’s efforts should provide benefits greater than what each is capable of independently. Work collaboratively on methodology, highlighting the individual contributions anchored in each person’s discipline. Defining achievable, measurable goals as a group improves commitment and efficacy. Summarize these points along with decisions on individual responsibilities, credit and ownership, and publication in a written agreement.

Funding details will likely require additional formal documentation. Shared research grants between collaborators at different institutions will require the involvement of their respective grants and contracts offices, who will also assist with formal agreements around sharing of data and materials.

It is also good to discuss a plan for data review. Trust but verify—researchers should always do due diligence in cross-checking data wherever there is potential for misconduct. You can request external review of specialized data where required.

Dissecting methodology

Discussing methodologies in depth ensures broad understanding and helps illuminate academic culture and language specific to each discipline. When exploring discipline-specific methodologies, examine what is essential for rigor and what is cultural preference or tradition to identify where compromises can be made2. Questions from external observers, though potentially uncomfortable, are helpful for this3. The limitations of each discipline will need to be discussed to allow the collaboration to transcend them, building something stronger together.

Camaraderie promotes insight, risk-taking, and experimentation, all key to scientific endeavors1.

Another suggestion to discover and resolve preconceived notions about each discipline is to recommend collaborators read literature samples and discuss their reactions as a group. 

Communication

Effective communication is challenging but vital to establishing consensus. Collaborators need to learn each other’s language and/or establish a common language. Avoiding discipline-specific jargon helps, as does engaging in active listening and asking questions. Confusion frequently arises from words that carry different nuances between disciplines or have a different meaning from common usage in one discipline3. Conceptual metaphors frequently become folded into the disciplinary lexicon, one deeply embedded example being the “genetic code”3. These can be extremely useful in translating concepts for interdisciplinary colleagues, but it takes focus to catch them and identify when they could be misinterpreted.

Team dynamics

Micropolitics and power differentials across teams come up frequently in multidisciplinary literature3,4. Imbalances are impossible to avoid, due to differences in experience and recognition, perceived hierarchy of disciplines, institutional reputations, and race, ethnicity, and gender. Equal standing across collaborators cannot be achieved without acknowledging these differences in open discussion, including ideas on mitigation tactics. 

Someone needs to schedule meetings and maintain communications to sustain momentum, maintain accountability, see to administrative tasks, and to mediate. Shared leadership improves cohesion—decide as a group who will take lead on each aspect or portion of the project.

Some researchers recommend having at least two collaborators from each discipline or with similar backgrounds to help bridge communication gaps and offer moral support to their colleagues when frustrations flare3. This is especially important for researchers from disciplines that are frequently under-represented on interdisciplinary teams or who have a history of inclusion as tokenism, as many in the social sciences have expressed4. “Close” may not count; hyperspecialization has resulted in distinct cultures and languages even between closely related disciplines. All team members need time to align with others on the team, regardless of disciplinary proximity. 

Disagreements will arise, and the team should discuss early how they will be addressed. Look for opportunities to decide methodological disagreements empirically. Locating a third party for mediation within one of the departments or institutions may be useful as well. 

Managing conflict

Conflict is unavoidable, but if handled well, it can benefit the project through consideration of opposing perspectives within healthy debate. Patience and flexibility are key. Positions rooted in a collaborator’s worldview are unlikely to be exposed until directly challenged4, but can lead to personal growth if the group fosters open-mindedness and a safe space for debate. If conflict arises, it’s important to approach it calmly and directly5. This approach tends to result in constructive debates, rather than destructive arguments or avoidance, effectively managing conflict.

Finding and establishing interdisciplinary collaborations can be challenging but rewarding. Effective communication and flexibility are key to success. If you are starting on this journey, there are a plethora of resources available.


Rachel Brown, MSc

Rachel Brown, MSc, is science writer/coordinator for Lab Manager.  Rachel holds a BSc from the University of Victoria and an MSc from the University of Alberta in systematics and evolution. Her thesis work explored the biology of a deep-sea species through histology (including SEM and TEM), computer modeling, and the development of a novel de novo next-generation sequencing (NGS) methodology for challenging specimens. Rachel then managed the NGS projects at a university genomics core lab in medicine—along with any other projects using shiny new technology—with a focus on developing methodologies for the core and problem-solving for researchers from diverse fields of study.

A passion for teaching and science communication led Rachel to run high-enrollment undergraduate biology labs, where she enjoyed fostering excitement for science, learning, and research techniques. There she launched initiatives to improve understanding of complex topics through the creation of interactive multimedia resources. This same passion underscores her work as a staff writer for Lab Manager, where she enjoys constantly exploring new topics. She particularly relishes the challenge of disseminating highly technical content in engaging, relevant ways through the integration of storytelling elements and illustrative writing. Continuing to help lab managers and researchers problem-solve and navigate lab issues is icing on the cake. She can be reached at rbrown@labmanager.com.