Promotion and tenure policies for interdisciplinary and collaborative research

Community member post by Julie Thompson Klein and Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski

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Julie Thompson Klein’s biography

Expanding interest in interdisciplinary and collaborative research across universities, funding agencies, professional organizations, and science-policy bodies has prompted growing attention to the academic reward system. Promotion and tenure loom large in this discussion. The acronym “P&T” in this blog is the customary abbreviation for “promotion and tenure” in North America, but the practices are international. All collaborative research is not interdisciplinary, and all interdisciplinary research is not team based. However, they are coupled increasingly in order to address complex scientific and societal problems, while also fostering innovation and partnerships bridging the academy and industry.

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Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski (biography)

Our Study

In order to inform efforts at local levels we conducted a literature search for related studies and documents. Our findings enabled us to generate a framework for the broad range of stakeholders involved in promotion and tenure processes: from individual candidates, external evaluators, and academic unit (e.g. departmental) heads to mid- and upper-level university administrators, with added insights for professional societies. This blog post incorporates all sections of Table 1 from Klein and Falk-Krzesinski (2017).

Part 1. Taking preliminary steps

Endorsements of interdisciplinary and collaborative research abound. However, local efforts are often piecemeal and not grounded in pertinent literature and models. Individual candidates pay a price for this gap, finding their interdisciplinary and collaborative work discounted in the reward system. For that reason, we made the starting point a set of preliminary steps. Promotion and tenure are not a single moment in a career. They are dependent on the readiness of an institution to support work at all stages, from hiring through annual, pre-tenure, and tenure reviews. As the first section from the Table demonstrates, delineation in documents that define a position is crucial. Here too we used North American terms – Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and Letter of Agreement (LOA) – but employment documents are also an international practice.

  • Inventory existing interdisciplinary and collaborative practices to identify their nature and extent throughout the career life cycle from hiring to pre-tenure and tenure review to subsequent stages of promotion;
  • Assemble and make public endorsements of interdisciplinary and/or collaborative work in institutional documents such as strategic plans and mission statements, as imprimaturs for recognizing their value in the P&T process;
  • Scrutinize current P&T practices and policies at all levels to determine if they support, marginalize, or ignore the value of interdisciplinary and collaborative work in advancing the institution’s goals as well as larger imperatives such as advancing knowledge and real-world problem solving;
  • Define expectations for interdisciplinary and collaborative work in job ads, the interview process, and the formal MOU or LOA.
  • Insure fair representation of expectations in setting up internal review committees, including input from leaders of all pertinent units (e.g., departments, programs, and centers), and [in] selecting external reviewers.

Part 2. Revising existing practices and policies

Even the best of intentions does not substitute for explicit guidelines and support for individual candidates, which may require changing the culture of reward. Both guidelines and support underscore the importance of transparency in a systematic approach to ensure consistency across all phases and levels of evaluation, alignment with institutional goals, and comprehensiveness in creating a culture of reward. At the unit level, mentoring is also important, enabling rather than impeding a candidate with added support at higher administrative levels in the university for inclusive evaluation. The last bullet point in the following section refers to the North American position of a “dean,” but the recommendation also applies to counterpart high-level administrative offices in other countries.

  • Issue top-level endorsements of the importance of revising existing practices and written policies to be inclusive of interdisciplinary and collaborative work in the P&T process;
  • Begin revising existing descriptions of practices and policies at all levels to add language recognizing their value and templates for doing so;
  • Make all revised statements about practices and written policies publicly available, and continue monitoring practices at and across all levels to insure consistency in recognizing contributions;
  • At the unit level, provide mentors throughout the pre-tenure process to help candidates achieve an appropriate balance of disciplinary and interdisciplinary work as well as individual and collaborative activities, then guide preparation of the P&T dossier;
  • At the unit level, track progress in annual pre-tenure reviews to monitor whether and how expectations are being met and to make adjustments in document language as needed;
  • At a dean’s level insure interdisciplinary and collaborative work are addressed specifically and adjudicate any conflicts that emerge from review committees and external reviewers.

Part 3. Writing guidelines

Although they are dispersed, a number of documents provide models for (re)writing local guidelines. They emanate from individual units, clusters such as medical schools, and, in a rare institution-wide example, the University of Southern California’s (USC) comprehensive revision of promotion and tenure policy. Some documents and studies also call for expanded criteria of what counts for consideration, moving beyond proxy measures of publications, presentations, and patents to include applied or commercial research and development, translation of scientific results into protocols of professional practice, and leadership of teams. Here too the second bullet point refers to positions in North America, but the recommendation applies to counterpart unit heads in other countries.

  • Support revisions and new policies by writing guidelines for all levels on appropriate evaluation, citing best practices and documents at other institutions, recommendations of pertinent professional organizations, and literature on expanding indicators of what “counts” along with related measures and qualitative strategies;
  • Write guidelines for faculty, mentors, and unit-level chairs/directors on including interdisciplinary and collaborative work in dossier preparation;
  • Develop guidelines for external reviewers and mid- and upper-level review committees on how to review the dossier to be inclusive and use appropriate criteria;
  • Provide candidates samples of inclusive P&T portfolios at the same and other institutions and from pertinent professional organizations.

Part 4. Preparing a dossier for promotion and tenure

The principle of “fair and honest attribution” in the University of Southern California’s model extends to preparation of dossiers for promotion and tenure. Individuals need to explain the nature of their work, especially in cutting-edge interdisciplinary areas. In the case of collaborative research, they need to define their role and its importance. In both cases, recommendations in the next section of the Table below provide concrete tips for constructing the dossier. The 14-point Contributor Roles Taxonomy (CRediT) is also a helpful document for defining individual contributions to teamwork. (The term “CV” refers to “Curriculum Vitae,” also designated as a “resume,” and “FAQ” is the internationally used acronym for “Frequently Asked Questions.”)

  • Reference institutional endorsements of the value of interdisciplinary and collaborative work in preparing the personal statement;
  • Synchronize explanation of the nature and importance of the work in personal statements synchronized with an annotated CV;
  • Add a FAQ page answering any questions that might arise, and attach a copy of the MOU/LOA specifying expectations for interdisciplinary and/or collaborative work;
  • For interdisciplinary work, explain the nature of the field and its epistemic community, genres of scholarship, venues of publication and presentation, funding sources, awards, public or stakeholder engagement, and applied and translational activities;
  • For collaborative work, explain the nature and importance of individual contributions, citing recognized models such as Project CRediT and the USC’s guidelines for “Collaborative Work.”

Part 5. Advancing support in professional organisations

Further research is needed to better understand the contextual dynamics of interdisciplinary and collaborative research in both particular knowledge fields and types of institutions, as well as mid- and long-term effectiveness of changes that have been introduced. The final section of the Table below includes recommendations for action by professional groups.

  • Create or revise as needed Best-Practices guidelines for P&T in designated discipline or field to support interdisciplinary and collaborative work;
  • Make public publications that highlight their importance in research and education today, including pertinent literature within the immediate discipline or field;
  • Call attention to national models of Best Practices;
  • Disseminate guidelines and related recommendations through the profession.

We welcome feedback from others on strategies within their own institutions and countries, as a step toward sharing and comparing experiences across countries.

Reference and Acknowledgement

This blog post is based on Table 1 reprinted from Research Policy 46(6), Klein, J. T. & Falk-Krzesinski, H. J., Interdisciplinary and collaborative work: Framing promotion and tenure practices and policies. 1055–1061, Copyright 2017, with permission from Elsevier.

All references appear in the article and in a folder on “Reward & Recognition for Promotion and Tenure” within the public Science of Team Science (SciTS) library group on Mendeley. To join, go to https://www.mendeley.com/community/science-of-team-science-(scits)/, then select Library from the top menu bar to see all folders in the SciTS group, or view using free Mendeley Desktop software. See also the folder on “Organizational & Institutional Issues” with additional team science references. In addition, we recommend searching for related references in the Science of Team Science Toolkit at www.teamsciencetoolkit.cancer.gov/Public/Home.aspx

Biography: Julie Thompson Klein is Professor of Humanities Emerita in the English Department at Wayne State University and an Affiliate of TdLab at the ETH-Zurich in Switzerland. Her publications span topics of interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, and digital humanities. She is a recipient of the Kenneth Boulding Award for outstanding scholarship on interdisciplinarity and the Yamamoorthy & Yeh Distinguished Transdisciplinary Achievement Award.

Biography: Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski is Vice President for Global Strategic Networks at Elsevier, focusing on how insights from data and analytics guide strategic planning for research institutions and on how open science strengthens the research enterprise. Her work emphasizes building partnerships around interdisciplinary research and team science, metrics and performance, reward and recognition, open access and research data, and economic development and innovation.

8 thoughts on “Promotion and tenure policies for interdisciplinary and collaborative research

  1. The daunting societal and global challenges facing us in the 21st Century–from climate change, pollution, and cybercrime to poverty, food insecurity, and the perils of nuclear war–cannot be grasped, let alone managed adequately, from narrow disciplinary or political perspectives. These “wicked”–some would say “super-wicked”–problems call for cross-disciplinary, systems-oriented analyses and interventions commensurate with the complexity of the challenges at hand. Boundary-spanning analytic and problem-solving approaches are best achieved through collaboration among diverse partners including, for example, university scholars, community-based professionals, lay citizens, educators, and government decision-makers. “Trans-epistemic” collaborations, or those that bridge multiple disciplinary as well as non-academic perspectives, are notoriously difficult to establish and sustain over extended periods. The success of convergent, solution-oriented scholarship sometimes referred to as “transdisciplinary action research” depends crucially on the alignment of collaborative incentives and structural supports at departmental, institutional, professional, and funding agency levels.

    Many faculty members in university settings are strongly motivated to collaborate with fellow scholars and community partners toward creating evidence-based solutions to community and societal problems. Yet, they are often discouraged by institutional constraints from engaging in collaborative action research. Among the strongest impediments to joining cross-disciplinary teams encountered by university faculty–especially young scholars early in their careers–are promotion and tenure criteria that give greater priority to individual accomplishments (like sole- or first-authored publications and extramural grants), than to their collaborative contributions to team-science and societal improvement. On the one hand, universities and funding agencies exhort faculty members to engage in cross-disciplinary convergent research, yet university criteria for promotion and tenure traditionally have favored individual modes of scholarly achievement.

    Kudos to Julie Thompson Klein and Holly Falk-Krzesinski for their cogent assessment of academic policies and criteria that in many, and perhaps most, universities discourage faculty engagement in cross-disciplinary team research. The authors review existing promotion and tenure policies at several universities that vary widely in terms of whether and how effectively they recognize and reward collaborative contributions to cross-disciplinary scholarship or, alternatively, discourage it. The authors also provide a valuable typology of collaborative supports and constraints situated at different organizational scales (e.g., at team, departmental, institutional, and research agency levels) and across different phases of scholars’ career development (e.g., from a junior scholar contemplating participation in team-based research, or a mid-career candidate preparing her dossier for promotion to tenure, to more senior faculty members and administrators participating in promotion and tenure reviews). Thompson Klein and Falk-Krzesinski make a strong case for developing and systematically implementing best-practices to encourage scholars’ engagement in team-based translational research, and explicitly recognize and reward their collaborative contributions to cross-disciplinary research.

    Not all university faculty members are motivated to participate in team-based transdisciplinary research. Some are more inclined and better suited to work independently or to collaborate with just a handful of colleagues, rather than join large multidisciplinary teams. There should be ample room in universities for diverse forms of scholarship. Faculty members who are so inclined should be encouraged to pursue research aimed primarily toward scientific discovery rather than remediating societal problems. Some academic research, such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, appeared to have little “practice value” when initially published. Yet the translational relevance of his theories became strikingly evident many decades later once corroborating evidence was compiled that validated his initial insights and their practical utility. But for those scholars who explicitly choose to pursue team-based action research, institutional efforts should be made to recognize and reward their collaborative contributions to convergent scholarship in promotion and tenure reviews.

    An earlier comment on Thompson-Klein’s and Falk-Krzesinski’s blog post suggested that university faculty are primarily driven by the goals of achieving tenure and promotion in university settings rather than the broader benefits of working with community partners to achieve evidence-based solutions to practical problems. My experience as a faculty member over several decades suggests that many university scholars are genuinely committed to engaging in university-community partnerships aimed not only at advancing scientific goals (and their careers, in the process), but also (and sometimes even more importantly) toward achieving collaborative, evidence-based solutions to societal and global problems. An important conclusion of Thompson-Klein’s and Falk-Krzesinski’s analysis is that faculty members’ teamwork with fellow academicians and community partners should be supported and rewarded rather than discouraged by institutional barriers to transdisciplinary team research.

    Dan Stokols, School of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine

    • Thank you, Dan, for your lengthy and thoughtful reply. The gap between the widening rhetoric of urgent challenges prompting calls for change in academic policies and actualizing it motivated us to study P&T policies more closely. The gap is especially problematic when universities exhort and court inter/transdisciplinary and team-based approaches but do not count them at the vital crunch time of tenure. “Alignment,” a key term you use, is an overarching metaphor for what needs to be done, not just tweaking a singular process such as P&T evaluation but all conditions for successful cross-disciplinary research and education. As you also note, despite continuing impediments traditional boundaries between university and community are being crossed.

      • Thank you for your reply to my reply 🙂 I strongly agree with your point about the importance of aligning multiple contextual factors that serve to enhance rather than hinder the prospects for successful cross-disciplinary collaboration and convergent scholarship & community practice.

    • While I appreciate the force of Linda’s comment, I disagree based on the growing number of practitioner-researchers, interprofessionalism, and transdisciplinary action research approaches. Granted they are often framed to counter traditional approaches, but their number is not insignificant. We elaborate on

      • to finish my sentence, since this forum is unforgiving if a thumb accidentally hits SEND too soon … We elaborate in the full article on calls for broader criteria in P&T to “count” practice-oriented approaches.

  2. Your posting has a great deal of merit and food for thought for the academic community. However I suggest a major matter goes unaddressed.

    You state that, “Expanding interest in interdisciplinary and collaborative research across universities, funding agencies, professional organizations, and science-policy bodies has prompted growing attention to the academic reward system. Promotion and tenure loom large in this discussion.”

    My observation as someone in a professional organization (a national police service) is this: I have found in many, but not all cases, that “collaborative research” with academics embedded in a university environment is ALL about “promotion and tenure” and free access to the hitherto inaccessible goodies in the “candy store” of privileged/confidential data contained in organizations such as ours.

    I would welcome the university-academic community to gain skills in boundary-spanning. That is, preparing research papers that are paid for by an organizational client that are also easily relevant to that organization.This may entail writing a paper targeted to peer-reviewed publication as well as a complementary paper addressing the needs of a sponsoring organization. Such a paper would be drafted in “plain talk” and cognitively accessible to corporate/organizational leaders and managers less interested in the minutia of literate reviews and statistical methodology than operational application tied to organizational purpose.

    Until that day of boundary-spanning “pracademics” (practical academics) arrives, many organizations will continue to not only question the value of “collaborative research” but also maintain a suspicious mind about what the real intentions of academics are–principally promotion and tenure.

    Eli Sopow Ph.D.

    • Thank you for raising an excellent point, Eli, and widening the context for discussion. I would check the generalization “ALL,” as you do yourself, by pointing out that many who are seeking career advancement are part of what is euphemistically called the “non-faculty.” They want promotion and long-term job status parallel to faculty P&T. However, that phenomenon is often linked with deprofessionalization. More directly relevant to your call for boundary-spanning, you also raise a major question about how insular academic writing is to particular audiences rather than addressing the needs of wider spheres, both in use of language and venues of disseminating results. To invoke a trendy term today, “translation” across boundaries is not as often configured a one-way street. It must be reciprocal and matched by a reward system that values it. Here too the gap between the rhetoric of change and failure to widen what “counts” haunts efforts to foster it.

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