The pitfalls of interdisciplinary research

When disciplines come together.

When disciplines come together.

Interdisciplinary research! Universities are apparently all for it and ‘breaking down silos’ is a mantra repeated throughout academia. However the reality is that the major venue for research outputs – peer-reviewed academic journals – are, for the most part, very discipline specific. Many editors and reviewers are often unable to embrace interdisciplinary research because it doesn’t fit the specific remit of the journal.

My work combines history, politics and criminology and I have found it difficult for some of my research to find the right journal for publication, particularly my research that combines archival research with criminological theory or concepts. There are numerous reasons why my research has been rejected by certain journals, but I have received reports back from editors and reviewers on numerous occasions complaining that a certain article is too historical or too criminology-focused; not enough security studies theory or not enough historical context, etc.

The result is that you try to take these criticisms on board and readdress the balance, but then the next journal says you’ve gone too far the other way!

Interdisciplinary research also makes for an extra hurdle in funding, for example in applying for funding with the Australian Research Council. To apply for ARC funding, you need to designate your research proposal with certain discipline codes. This determines who reads the application and who you are competing against. These readers can judge interdisciplinary projects quite harshly, particularly in how the project sits within the wider discipline. An interdisciplinary approach can make a research proposal seem exciting and innovative, but readers may also claim that an interdisciplinary approach means that a research proposal ‘falls between two stalls’ and isn’t grounded in either discipline.

Don’t get me wrong, conducting interdisciplinary research and collaborating with people in other disciplines has been hugely beneficial for me and I try to employ this approach in most of my work. However it is frustrating that many journals seem unwilling to embrace a similar approach. In my (limited) experience, history discipline journals have probably been the most open-minded to interdisciplinary research, but too much theory introduced from other disciplines can off-put some reviewers and editors.

Have others found themselves in a similar situation when undertaking interdisciplinary research? Should we keep going with it, or just stick to our disciplines?

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2 comments

  1. Fascinating piece. This is something I’ve struggled with in the past. One of the peer reviewers of the proposal for my last book (on Irish political history) criticised it for not having enough political theory in it, even though I’m a historian. When my first book (also on political history) was published, one review took issue with the section that did use political theory. Can’t win!

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