Often scholars complain about how difficult it is to publish interdisciplinary research. The reasons they give include problems with finding an adequate journal, reviewers who do not value interdisciplinary contributions, or more basic concerns as expressed by a social scientist: “As a sociologist to collaborate intimately with a biologist. What should we write about? I don’t know!” (Pohl 2005:1169). In this context, at least four trends in the scientific system need to be taken into account when asking how to successfully publish interdisciplinary research.
First, over the past years, publishing in teams has been observed to be a general trend within academia (Hicks and Katz 1996). In natural, engineering, and social sciences, the number of authors per article in Web of Science publications has steadily increased over the last 50 years. Only in arts and humanities do 90% of the publications remain single-author monographs (Wuchty et al. 2007, Jones et al. 2008). Because the number of authors of a paper seems to positively correlate with how often it is quoted (Gazni und Didegah 2011), publishing in teams appears to be the proper strategy in times when scientific achievements are primarily measured quantitatively, by the h-index among other factors. Hence, publishing in teams is not a specific phenomenon of social-ecological research or of research for sustainable development, but a general phenomenon.
Second, publishing in teams mirrors the more generic trend of doing research in collaboration. According to Bozeman et al. (2013:1), “there is abundant evidence that research collaboration has become the norm in every field of scientific and technical research.” A key indicator that has been used “as a basic counting unit to measure collaborative activity” is coauthorship, again mostly because it is easy to quantify (Katz and Martin 1997:2). However, because research collaboration encompasses much more than collectively writing a paper, this does not answer satisfactorily the question of how to adequately express collaborative research contributions in terms of authorship. Cheruvelil et al. (2014) have suggested that researchers should agree on an authorship/coauthorship policy to clarify this question early in a project. Furthermore, a group of journal editors and universities have recently proposed and tested a contributor role taxonomy to make each researcher’s specific contribution to a paper transparent (Allen et al. 2014). Of the 14 suggested taxonomy criteria, 3 address paper writing: writing the initial draft; critical review, commentary, or revision; and visualization/data presentation. The remaining 11 categories include, but are not limited to, contributions to study conception, supervision, or funding acquisition. However, key contributions like a “brilliant suggestion made by a scientist during casual conversation” (Katz and Martin 1997:2) are still beyond the scope of that taxonomy. Thus, analyzing successful interdisciplinary publishing means to focus on one specific element within the complex and comprehensive process of research collaboration, the element that counts most for scientific merit.
Third, collaboration in teams does not necessarily have to be interdisciplinary. We refer to interdisciplinarity as to “a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice” (NAS/NAE/IOM 2005:2). This broad understanding covers a plurality of specific definitions, for which Klein (2010) provided a detailed taxonomy. According to this broad definition, the motivation for interdisciplinary research lies in the purpose of joint knowledge production, i.e., advancing fundamental understanding or solving problems. Research collaborations can, however, also be motivated by the desire of researchers “to increase their scientific popularity …, visibility and recognition,” “the need to gain experience or to train apprentice researchers in the most effective way possible” (Katz and Martin 1997:4), or by a funder trying to increase international collaboration. Hence, interdisciplinary research is a specific form of collaborative research that is motivated by the subject matter.
Fourth, the interest in better understanding and practicing collaborative research in general, and inter- and transdisciplinary research in particular, is growing. Scholars of the novel field of the science of team science (Stokols et al. 2008a, Falk-Krzesinski et al. 2011) provide, for instance, an extensive review of the intrapersonal, interpersonal, organizational/institutional, physical/environmental, technological, and socio-political factors that influence teams and provide the context for the “ecology of team science” (Stokols et al. 2008b). Handbooks of interdisciplinarity (Frodeman et al. 2010) and of transdisciplinary research (Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008) give an overview of the state of the art of these research forms and identify stumbling blocks (Wiesmann et al. 2008). Other publications provide methods and tools to improve the practice of collaborative, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research. Among those are suggestions to facilitate interdisciplinary research (NAS/NAE/IOM 2005), the team science toolkit (Vogel et al. 2013), dialog methods for research integration (McDonald et al. 2009), methods for transdisciplinary research (Bergmann et al. 2012), tools to support teams in collaboration (Bennett et al. 2010, Cheruvelil et al. 2014), and tools to enhance interdisciplinary understanding and communication (Heemskerk et al. 2003, Winowiecki et al. 2011, O’Rourke and Crowley 2013).
We focus on the process of writing interdisciplinary articles for a Special Feature in Ecology and Society. We reduced the complexity inherent in analyzing collaborative research as follows: (1) We excluded from our analysis questions that are not primarily related to the process of collaborative interdisciplinary writing. Such questions are, for instance, whether a team is adequately managed over the whole research process, or what the scientific impact of coauthored papers is (Cheruvelil et al. 2014). (2) We did not discuss the issue of whether the chosen coauthorship model appropriately covers each researcher’s contribution, because in the consortium there was a shared understanding of how to stick to the respective institutional rules. (3) We concentrated on a team’s disciplinary diversity, and not, for instance, on a team’s diversity in terms of race, gender, or age (Bozeman et al. 2013). (4) We focused on providing practical knowledge on how to improve interdisciplinary publishing, and not, for instance, on providing evidence of how a team’s disciplinary heterogeneity relates to its publishing patterns (Porac et al. 2004, Stvilia et al. 2011, Hall et al. 2012, Cheruvelil et al. 2014). Given this focus, there were only a few studies that provide specific advice on how to improve the practice of interdisciplinary publishing. We identified six recommendations from the literature, as follows:
The goal of our analysis was to develop a broader picture of the factors that hinder or help interdisciplinary publishing, and to come up with a comprehensive set of recommendations. To this end, we evaluated the collaborative process within the interdisciplinary research project “Mountland” for publishing an Ecology and Society Special Feature. This collective process went beyond publishing the results of already-completed interdisciplinary studies. Rather, joint publishing was itself part of interdisciplinary research, such that “[i]nformation, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines” (NAS/NAE/IOM 2005:2) continued to be further integrated when developing and writing the papers.
The ex post analysis of the interdisciplinary publishing process in Ecology and Society was guided by two research questions: (1) What are the factors that hinder or support publishing interdisciplinary research? (2) What does a successful interdisciplinary publishing process look like?
The goal of Mountland was to propose policy solutions in three case study regions of the Swiss Alps based on an analysis of the sensitivity of the provisioning of mountain ecosystem goods and services to changes in climate and land use. An integrative approach was applied, combining methods from economic, political, and natural sciences to analyze ecosystem functioning from a holistic human-environment system perspective (Huber et al. 2013a, 2013b).
The project comprised 10 research groups and involved more than 37 researchers and PhD students (see Appendix 1). A management board consisting of two professors and three senior scientists strategically led the project. The research was based on seven mostly disciplinary PhD studies and four mostly interdisciplinary postdoctoral studies. An additional postdoctoral researcher coordinated the interdisciplinary efforts between research groups and clusters, as well as the interaction with stakeholders outside the scientific community. The analysis was organized around three clusters: an ecological, a socioeconomic, and a policy assessment task. Within each research cluster, several methods were applied, ranging from the analysis of long-term monitoring data (Barbeito et al. 2012, Rigling et al. 2013) and quantitative ecological experiments (Dawes et al. 2011, Eilmann et al. 2013, Gavazov et al. 2014) to simulation models (e.g., Elkin et al. 2012, Peringer et al. 2013, Zurbriggen et al. 2014) and social network analysis (Hirschi et al. 2013). The integration across research clusters relied strongly on a modeling approach: the Alpine Land Use Allocation Model allowed us to combine ecological conditions and socioeconomic developments into an integrated framework (Briner et al. 2012). This framework served as a tool to relate climate-induced and economically driven changes (Briner et al. 2013a) to trade-off analysis (Briner et al. 2013b), as well as to policy assessments (Hirschi et al. 2013, Huber et al. 2013c).
The interdisciplinary nature of Mountland was promoted from the outset of the project because it was partly funded by the Competence Center Environment and Sustainability of the ETH Domain (CCES). The goal of CCES was to support inter- and transdisciplinary research to facilitate the integration of sustainable development principles into country policies and programs (Kueffer et al. 2012). Within the frame of CCES, interdisciplinarity stands for the collaboration across disciplines, whereas transdisciplinarity goes beyond interdisciplinarity by also including the engagement with societal stakeholders. This is one common understanding of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity (Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008, Klein 2010). Another common understanding is that transdisciplinarity goes beyond interdisciplinarity by a higher degree of integration of disciplinary insights or by a higher diversity of the disciplines involved (Rosenfield 1992, Stokols et al. 2003). Throughout this paper, we adhere to the former definition.
As part of CCES, Mountland had access to specific funding that explicitly supported interdisciplinary efforts of postdoctoral candidates. To add value to the inter- and transdisciplinary efforts in Mountland, results were published not only in Ecology and Society but also in two Special Issues of journals at the interface between science and stakeholders from the Swiss agricultural and forestry sectors, respectively, that are not indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information (Huber et al. 2012a, 2012b).
To prepare the Special Feature of Ecology and Society, the researchers of Mountland carved the niches for a set of interdisciplinary article contributions in a one-day workshop in May 2011. This effort included the discussion of first-authorship and coauthorship based on research work and the involvement in the writing of the paper. Because the inter- and transdisciplinary contributions had to be submitted within a given time frame, i.e., by February 2012, intensive coordination between research groups was required and the writing processes needed to be synchronized. The interdisciplinary articles were subjected to a proper submission and external review process. Three subject editors from within the project guided this process by suggesting independent and qualified reviewers, and coordinating the communication between authors, reviewers, and the editor-in-chief. In 2013, the ten articles were successively published online (http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/issues/view.php?sf=75; see Table 1).
For identifying the crucial factors that had supported and hindered the process of jointly developing and writing the papers, we used an integration method called the story wall (Smit 2005). This method makes use of the fact that interdisciplinary publishing processes can be perceived and reproduced as stories. It allows considering that the members of a group may at least partly experience a process in different ways and stress different elements as having been important. Through storytelling, the individual perspectives can be collected and a joint understanding of the past can be created.
In our case, the stories concerned publishing interdisciplinary research both on the level of the single papers (papers 1-9) and on level of the overall synthesis (paper 10). We discussed this process with its subprocesses in a workshop that brought together all coauthors. Two scientists who are experienced in analyzing disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research facilitated the workshop, which was structured in six steps:
After the workshop, the coordinator of Mountland and the two scholars experienced in analyzing disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research formed a subteam for analyzing the story walls. Data analysis was based on the qualitative methodology of grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Applying a qualitative approach enabled us to account for the diversity of aspects influencing the experienced publication process and suited the limited number of 10 cases. In grounded theory, concepts and patterns are derived from empirical data , e.g., text, drawings, video or audio recordings, as opposed to using a theory as starting point. Following this rationale, we started with the influence factors identified within each story wall. Because we aimed at being understandable to researchers who might use the analysis to improve other interdisciplinary publishing processes, we followed the approach of substantive theorizing, which is opposed to aiming at connecting to a specific discipline’s concepts and current debate, i.e., formal theorizing (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Thus, we used codes that correspond to the language of interdisciplinary researchers. For coding, we clustered similar factors to groups and described them in a more general and paraphrased way. To reground our interpretations in the empirical data, we wrote a short story for each paper, which related the coded factors to each paper’s context (see Appendix 2). To review the 10 story walls and to analyze the factors in the process of interdisciplinary publishing, we collected all story walls in the same design (Fig. 1). Using constant comparisons across stories and between codes and story walls (Corbin and Strauss 2008), we refined and reformulated the coded factors. At this stage, we realized that in most cases success factors and barriers were actually positive or negative expressions of the same factor. Finally, we categorized the resulting set of 10 factors into four major groups of resources. This structure served to clarify how the resource groups can be used to support or hinder interdisciplinary publishing (see Table 2).
Table 2 summarizes and describes the 10 resulting factors. They are grouped into scientific resources, human resources, integrative resources, and feedback resources. Each factor can hinder or support interdisciplinary publishing, depending on the frame conditions described in the respective cells. Figure 1 summarizes the story walls of the 10 published papers. The numbers indicate the most important hindering (red) or supporting (green) factors. The story wall of each paper is explained in more detail in Appendix 2.
Scientific resources that influenced the publication process include previous joint research and manuscripts being written in parallel by the same authors. Previous joint research (factor 1) means that the process of writing interdisciplinary papers can build on previous interdisciplinary research collaboration. It is a supporting factor if interdisciplinary collaborations are established before manuscript writing starts. For two out of 10 Mountland manuscripts, this was not the case. Interdisciplinary links between different research projects had actually been planned in the initial research framework. These links, however, were not always established or not completed successfully during the project. Papers 3 and 4, for instance, suffered from the fact that the associated PhD student had to quit for health reasons and model input for interdisciplinary research was missing (see Appendix 2). Different manuscripts written in parallel by the same authors (factor 2) turned out to be a supporting factor in most cases, in spite of the additional workload. They encompassed, for example, articles for stakeholder-oriented journals or different articles for the same Special Feature in which the researchers were involved as well. Writing manuscripts in parallel helped to clarify the manuscripts’ main messages, to focus each manuscript, and to avoid redundancy. In the case of paper 2, a parallel manuscript hindered the process, however: a figure could not be used in the interdisciplinary manuscript because it was based on data of a publication written in parallel, which was not ready to be published yet.
In terms of human resources, the main factors influencing the interdisciplinary publishing process were coordination, flexibility with respect to time and resources, and team composition. A project coordinator (factor 3) with preference for a particular disciplinary perspective on an issue hinders the process. A coordinator supports the process if (s)he is open to and interested in the different disciplinary perspectives and has the time and flexibility to identify and discuss topics requiring interdisciplinary collaboration. The flexibility (factor 4) to allocate additional workforce and money to specific aspects of developing an interdisciplinary manuscript or even to include or hire additional researchers was another important supporting factor. For papers 2, 3, and 4, for example, an additional research assistant and an additional postdoctoral researcher were able to catch up the missing work of the PhD student who quit. For paper 5, a master student performed modeling tasks to adjust the existing model to another region. For the synthesis of the project (paper 10), the flexibility of the different postdoctoral researchers and professors allowed pulling together the necessary information. In contrast, manuscripts that are locked in and get no additional input or know-how from outside because of missing time resources hinder the publication of interdisciplinary research. A successful revision of paper 7 could not be achieved until an additional author was able to resolve the lock in of previous versions of the manuscript. Finally, the composition of a team (factor 5) and the presence of efficiently collaborating researchers from different disciplines with different roles turned out to be an important aspect in publishing interdisciplinary research. This includes, but is not limited to, the availability of senior researchers and professors with sophisticated disciplinary backgrounds who can afford to and are interested in taking part in such processes.
Integrative resources influencing interdisciplinary publishing cover the vision of integration and the timing of results. The vision of integration (factor 6) means that a project team arrives at a joint vision about a synthesis linking and integrating disciplinary and interdisciplinary research and an appropriate form of publication. Both the vision of the synthesis and the choice of the journal were collectively deliberated on at the first workshop (May 2011), together with the concepts of the single interdisciplinary contributions (see Fig. 1). For most of the papers, the joint vision and the identified topics triggered the work on an actual manuscript. The vision also allowed for an active exchange of ideas between the groups of authors, and facilitated findings to be aligned within the existing research framework. Moreover, the vision of the synthesis focused the search for an adequate journal, which otherwise would have been difficult. Once manuscript writing started, the timing of results (factor 7) turned out to be a main hindering factor. Papers 1, 3, 4, 5, and 10 all were delayed because they relied on results published in one of the other papers. Only in paper 8 was this not a problem because there was a clear plan on how to integrate disciplinary approaches and their results.
Interdisciplinary publishing often depends on feedback from internal reviews, subject editors, and external reviewers. The internal review process (factor 8) hindered the publication of papers 1, 5, and 10. Several coauthors who were strongly pressed for time reviewed only their discipline-specific section contributions to the paper, but not the paper as a whole, which entailed the danger of ending with “committee papers” that lack integration. Subject editors (factor 9), being familiar with Mountland as well as with doing and publishing interdisciplinary research, strongly supported the publication process. In contrast to some external reviewers, the subject editors recognized the interdisciplinary potential of papers 5, 7, 8, and 9. They helped the authors to clarify and elaborate the interdisciplinary contribution and to align the reviewers’ comments with the authors’ options to adapt the manuscript. This was not aimed at lowering the bar for getting accepted, because the ultimate decision on acceptance of the papers was made by the editor-in-chief of the journal, not the subject editors. External reviewers’ inputs (factor 10) helped interdisciplinary publishing and substantially improved all manuscripts, particularly papers 9 and 10. In the case of paper 8, however, the external reviewers hindered the process by seeing no added value in the interdisciplinary effort and by asking the authors to focus the manuscript on one discipline only.
The first of the six recommendations on interdisciplinary publishing identified in the introduction says that “[j]ournal editors and editorial boards should encourage interdisciplinary contributions” (NAS/NAE/IOM 2005:201). This was helped greatly by the fact that Ecology and Society is one of the few journals that target exactly this kind of research. In addition, we found that subject editors (factor 9) and external reviewers (factor 10) who are open-minded toward interdisciplinary research are of crucial importance.
According to the second recommendation, deadlines or time constraints should be used to focus the group (Gooch 2005). Our analysis adds to this recommendation the experience that in spite of good time planning and rigorous monitoring of the writing activities, many things can develop in an unforeseen way, such as researchers quitting the project. We therefore recommend building flexibility in the publishing process in terms of money, time, and people (factor 4).
The third recommendation states that a basic understanding of other disciplines is required for collaborative writing (Gooch 2005). Our analysis suggests a number of additional factors. Previous joint research facilitates such mutual understanding and fosters interdisciplinary publishing (factor 2). The composition of the team is crucial (factor 5): A good team will be self-reinforcing because it promotes fruitful collaboration and real teamwork. The participation of senior researchers who are more experienced in research and publishing, who are ready to deal with other disciplines, and who can place their contributions within a broader framework is a valuable component. PhD students may be less well prepared to do so because they mostly have to develop a disciplinary identity first. Also, joint visions of integration are required (factor 6). This does not need to be a single unifying big vision across the entire project. In the case of Mountland, different forms of integration were used in the various papers and stages: common group learning, modeling, negotiation among experts, or integration by a leader (Rossini and Porter 1979). However, the predominant form of integration was using models as integrative frameworks that asked for data and indicators that could be exchanged between groups. Furthermore, a coordinator who is flexible and interested in integration and interdisciplinarity is very valuable (factor 3). Finally, researchers should be prepared to review more than their own sections in jointly written papers (factor 8).
The fourth recommendation asks participants to recognize that the stages of paper writing, i.e., outline, drafting of parts, and revision, can be accomplished in a variety of ways (Ede and Lunsford 1990, Gooch 2005). Our analysis does not contradict this recommendation. We found as many ways of joint writing as we had papers. However, based on the central role of the vision of integration we would specify that once the vision is clear and the form of integration agreed on, the exact manner in which collective writing is organized may indeed be less relevant.
According to the fifth recommendation, project researchers should aim at publishing both disciplinary and interdisciplinary insights (Kueffer et al. 2007). Our analysis makes this recommendation more specific by suggesting that manuscripts be written in parallel: If an author or a group of authors prepares several manuscripts on the same issue for different audiences in parallel, this helps clarifying each paper’s specific message (factor 2). On the other hand, if several groups of authors publish disciplinary and interdisciplinary insights in parallel, they may have to consider the points in time at which the results of other parts are provided and ready for publication (factor 7). This may be important not only for practical, but also for strategic, reasons: New disciplinary insights often first need to be published in a disciplinary journal to promote the highest possible scientific impact.
The sixth recommendation states that projects should also publish methodological insights gained through the interdisciplinary research process (Kueffer et al. 2007). With respect to the publishing part, this is what we tried to achieve with the present paper.
We have attempted to assess the elements of an ideal-typical story wall summarizing the success factors for publishing a team’s interdisciplinary efforts. We call the story wall “ideal-typical” (Weber 1962) because it represents a simplified summary of the crucial process factors, accentuating the most relevant among them. Figure 2 illustrates the most essential success factors of such an ideal-typical publication process, grouped as scientific resources, human resources, integrative resources, and feedback resources.
In terms of scientific resources, the first factor that supports publishing interdisciplinary research is previous research collaboration. Preferably, the conceptual background of the underlying research has methodological interfaces that allow for an effective integration of research findings from different scientific disciplines. In addition, basic information on the methodologies’ disciplinary background should already be published, so that it can be referred to. Moreover, writing manuscripts in parallel for different audiences helps to clarify a paper’s message (factor 2). With respect to human resources, the coordinator represents the focal point for successfully publishing interdisciplinary research (factor 3). Ideally, a research coordinator is familiar with ongoing disciplinary and interdisciplinary research, and can actively support the writing process. Within each project, there should be time and funding specifically reserved for the review process to improve and possibly refocus the initial manuscripts (factor 4). The availability of experienced senior scientists and professors (factor 5) with a strong disciplinary background forms another essential part of an ideal-typical process for publishing interdisciplinary research. In terms of integrative resources, it is key to jointly deliberate and decide on the adequate form(s) of integration and to develop a joint vision of the integrated output (factor 6). This vision in turn forms an essential starting point for the process of publishing interdisciplinary research. Another crucial task is to coordinate the results from different disciplines that have to be integrated over time (factor 7). In terms of feedback resources, projects should allocate time and resources to review the parts of the papers written by coauthors (factor 8). Furthermore, a subject editor with a broad overview of the project, the involved disciplines, and the interdisciplinary merits (factor 9) needs to find excellent reviewers with strong disciplinary expertise who are open-minded regarding interdisciplinary efforts (factor 10).
To successfully implement such an ideal-typical publication process, long-term planning is needed. This is so because some of the factors hindering or supporting interdisciplinary publishing are defined already at the stage of writing the research proposal, rather than when writing the papers based on the research results. Thus, planning a joint synthesis in a Special Feature may be a stimulating incentive for different research groups and disciplines to take part in an interdisciplinary process right from the start.
We freely admit that the success factors for interdisciplinary publishing that we propose here for the ideal-typical story wall are based on an exploratory analysis of one single case, i.e., the Ecology and Society Special Feature of the research project Mountland. We assume that a project’s structural characteristics, such as the way disciplinary research efforts are integrated, the number and kind of the disciplines involved, and the way the project is funded, strongly influence the relevance and practical importance of these factors. Thus, a comparative study of different interdisciplinary publishing processes would allow for valuing and generalizing the individual factors by relating them to structural characteristics of different interdisciplinary research projects. However, with the caveat that the factors may have a different relevance in a different project context, we strongly suggest that they should at least be inspiring and useful for planning and undertaking interdisciplinary publishing processes in a more sophisticated way.
This work was supported by the CCES (Competence Center Environment and Sustainability of the ETH Domain, Switzerland) as part of the MOUNTLAND project and by the Stiftung Mercator Schweiz. We thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.
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