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.

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