By Yan Ding, Justin Pulford, Susie Crossman and Imelda Bates
How can we facilitate cross-disciplinary research in practice? What practical actions are considered important for participating in cross-disciplinary research? How do these actions change at the individual, research team/programme and institutional/funder level?
Cross-disciplinary research approaches allow for the interchange of knowledge and experience to stimulate innovative responses to complex research challenges.
The individual researcher requires certain personal attributes for effective participation in cross-disciplinary research. They should:
- recognise its value
- have the motivation to explore new ideas
- be willing to learn from other disciplines.
This requires confident researchers, ready to face the unknowns of working outside of their own disciplinary boundaries.
Pushing disciplinary boundaries can make researchers more prone to negative emotions. Courage and commitment to working collaboratively can offset these through the generation of creative analyses, outputs, theories, and a better understanding of one’s own discipline. Expanding into a more diverse scientific community also provides the potential for network development and collaboration.
Research teams and programmes
Good leadership is the core component for fostering cross-disciplinary research at the research team/programmatic level. Good leaders should:
- take time to develop and communicate their vision
- manage the expectations of the diverse team
- encourage defining and framing research problems collaboratively, working to a common conceptual framework.
Through clearly defined roles, a good leader can build a team of experienced and early-career researchers, recognising complementary expertise. A good cross-disciplinary research leader can strike the fine balance between providing mentorship to less experienced researchers whilst also identifying and minimizing academic and discipline hierarchy.
Personal qualities of a good leader – trustworthiness, transparency, and openness – nurture a psychologically ‘safe’ space and allow for open communication. Good communication and open discussions are essential to agree on approaches for methods of working, data analysis, the split of resources, workloads, credit (eg., authorship) and the relationship with funders.
Good communication and open discussions can also assist in conflict prevention and management. When encountering frustration, reassess the reasons for, and maybe reconfigure, the cross-disciplinary approach. However, as important as it is to work collaboratively, team members who cannot find ways to work together productively should be disengaged; tensions can be alleviated by planning for respectful exits.
Research brokers can facilitate communication among disciplines. Communications specialists can be particularly useful for engaging local stakeholders and organizing and expanding collaborative networks.
Research institutions and funders
There are numerous actions that research institutions can implement to promote a successful cross-disciplinary research culture, including:
- establishing institutional structures such as dedicated cross-disciplinary research centres with common administration infrastructures
- allowing for shared spaces such as offices, study sites, and meeting venues
- appropriate use of incentives – especially faculty incentives and institutional seed money
- facilitating networking and matching research collaborators
- disseminating and promoting cross-disciplinary research-specific funding information
- initiating and maintaining cross-disciplinary research mentorship schemes.
Funders have an important role in shaping a diverse cross-disciplinary research culture with their ability to dedicate funding for such research and commission research on cross-disciplinary communication and coordination. However, there is also an important non-fiscal role they can play such as supporting cross-disciplinary research through:
- flexible review processes for funding applications
- linking researchers across disciplines
- engaging with universities and academic publishers for better recognition of cross-disciplinary research
- engaging policy makers when the research is policy relevant.
It is worth remembering that the practical actions we have presented here at different levels do not exist in isolation, rather they are interconnected across the cross-disciplinary research lifecycle. Whilst some require dedicated funding to implement, others are low-cost.
What has your experience been with cross-disciplinary research at the researcher, leader or institutional/funder level? Do you have additional tips to share?
To find out more:
Ding Y, Pulford J. and Bates I. (2020). Practical actions for fostering cross-disciplinary global health research: Lessons from a narrative literature review. BMJ Global Health, 5, e002293. (Online – open access) (DOI): http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmjgh-2020-002293
Ding, Y. (2019). Tips for conducting cross-disciplinary research. Multidisciplinary Programme to Address Lung Health and TB in Africa Programme (IMPALA), Multi-disciplinary Capacity Development Project (MUDI), International Bulletin #1, December 2019. (Online): https://www.lstmed.ac.uk/sites/default/files/content/projects/files/MUDI%20Bulletin%20December%202019.pdf (PDF 228KB).
Biography: Yan Ding Ph.D. is a post-doctoral research associate at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. She is a social scientist working in global health with research interests in health system strengthening, research capacity strengthening, and science for cross-disciplinary research in global health.
Biography: Justin Pulford Ph.D. is a senior lecturer at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. His current research activities focus on the design, measurement and evaluation of programmes designed to strengthen research capacity in low- and middle-income countries. In addition, he maintains a broad interest in implementation research designed to strengthen health systems, disease control programmes and community-based health improvement initiatives.
Biography: Susie Crossman is a research impact and knowledge translation officer at the Centre for Capacity Research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the UK. She works with colleagues to measure, evaluate, and evidence the impact of the Centre’s activities, and in addition, supports the Centre’s aim (through the implementation of research projects) to ensure that its research translates into practice and improves health outcomes.
Biography: Imelda Bates Ph.D. is a professor in clinical tropical haematology and Head of the Centre for Capacity Research at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, and an honorary consultant haematologist at the Royal Liverpool Hospital in the UK. In addition to the Centre’s research into how to design, measure and evaluate programmes to strengthen research capacity and laboratory systems in low- and middle-income countries, she has a particular interest in evidence to improve the supply and use of blood for transfusion in low- and middle-income countries.