Using other scientific disciplines

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Three Thoughts on Interdisciplinary Research:
[Via Michael Jubb’s blog]
Comments on Michael’s three thoughts following some meetings he has attended recently:

The first was a suggestion, perhaps a hypothesis, that interdisciplinary research will lead (has led?) to an increase in researchers’ interest in open access. The thought here is that researchers in some disciplines (notably some areas of the biosciences) are more inclined to adopt some form of open access in publishing their work; and that as researchers from other disciplines less inclined to open access join with, say, bioscientists in their research, they will be introduced to open access ways of thought. It seems a plausible hypothesis, and one that could fairly easily be tested. Does interdisciplinary research feature particularly prominently in OA journals, or in the contents of repositories?

I think part of this is that working in a interdisciplinary fashion fosters openness. That is, such researchers are often working in and relying on access to scientific disciplines other than the one that the researcher was trained in. If they can not access research from a discipline, they will not really be able to work in that discipline.

It would seem likely that collaborative efforts would most easily flow to those areas that foster open communication with collaborators. Hard to be multidisciplinary it there is not open collaboration with others.Thus open access becomes part of the culture of multidisciplinary research.

The second thought comes from a presentation by Carol Tenopir of the findings of the latest Tenopir and King reader surveys. One of the interesting findings is that interdisciplinary researchers are more likely than other researchers to follow citation links as their means of getting access to journal articles; and that the latest article they have read is more likely to be in digital, as distinct from print, format. Why that should be is perhaps worth some investigation.

Online is all about finding information quickly, incorporating it into the local community and then using it to create knowledge to make decisions. Rapid analysis followed by community synthesis. The collaborative cycle cranks much faster when online tools and Web 2.0 approaches are used. This allows multidisciplinary efforts to be launched that would be virtually impossible without these tools. This pace of collaboration can not be as rapidly sustained using paper means.

The third thought comes from a presentation by Mayur Amin of Elsevier about surveys of usage of journals in Science Direct. One of the interesting findings here is that while for researchers in physics and maths, 70% or more of usage is of journals within the discipline, for researchers in other disciplines, such including chemistry and environmental sciences, usage of journals within the discipline is at less than half that level. This may of course be an effect of the way in which Elsevier classify the journals. But it is at least open to the suggestion that researchers in some disciplines are more inclined to read beyond their own discipline. Is this evidence that some disciplines are more interdisciplinary than others? Is this something worth investigating?

One hypothesis is based on the hierarchy of science and the natural world. Math as a discipline is the most abstract; it can exist without any real need to be part of any other discipline but almost every other discipline needs math. Physics then comes next. It needs math to describe itself but little else other than physics.

Then comes chemistry and biology. Each level down involves lesser abstraction and closer dealings with the natural world. Each requires more and more simple experimentation and observation. Physics has gedanken experiments, which come close to the Greek ideal of not needing to do any experimentation. Math needs no experiments at all and can be done simply in one’s head.

I’m stretching a point but to really understand biology, you need to at least be familiar with chemistry, with physics and with math (not necessarily comfortable since I often think some people go into biology because the math requirements in college are easier than for physics). Physics, though, does not really require a knowledge of chemistry or biology. So, perhaps, this need to understand other fields in order to be trained in biology instills a little more attraction to interdisciplinary approaches, as can be seen in the journal usage seen by Elsevier.

Or maybe it is just sampling error.

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