Investigating interdisciplinary research

Academics at Britain’s University of Birmingham are working with international scientific publisher Elsevier to investigate the “discourse of interdisciplinary research”, known as IDR, through a comprehensive and innovative linguistic analysis of the full content since 1990 of a successful IDR journal, Global Environmental Change.

According to Birmingham’s Dr Paul Thompson and Professor Susan Hunston, who are conducting the study, this will be complemented by linguistic analyses of samplings of five other IDR journals and five discipline-specific journals, and by surveys of and interviews with editors, reviewers and researchers.

“It is generally accepted now that many real-world problems are best addressed by a number of disciplines working together rather than by individual disciplines alone. In the UK, research councils promote interdisciplinary research activity, and universities in turn encourage academics to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines,” Thompson said.

“It is not always easy, however, for researchers in different areas to cooperate, because each discipline has methods of working, expectations, value systems and ways of talking and writing that are special to that discipline and not easily shared.

“We believe it is important for institutions, research councils and researchers to have a fuller understanding of what the distinctive features of discourse practices in interdisciplinary research are and of how they differ from discourse practices in conventional disciplines.”

The investigation

The two academics said that as a first step they would investigate the discourse of a successful journal in an interdisciplinary field, Global Environmental Change, studying the extent to which this field operated as a unified whole, the extent to which journal authors in the field broadened their messages to a multidisciplinary audience, and the extent to which each discipline in the field maintained a discrete identity.

“We will include in our study every article published in the journal since its inception in 1990. The primary methodology we use is Corpus Linguistics, that is, using specialised software to analyse large quantities of written text.

“Many studies of individual disciplines, using corpus techniques, already exist, but these techniques have not yet been applied to an interdisciplinary field.

“We will use an approach to the description of the linguistic features of texts that will make it possible for us to cluster texts according to degrees of correlation in their linguistic profiles; this approach, developed by Douglas Biber, is called 'multidimensional analysis'. In addition, we will investigate the recurrent phraseologies of texts in this field and then cluster texts with similar phraseological profiles.”

The two researchers said they would then examine the results of the investigation of the discourse of interdisciplinary research in the journal by comparing it to samples of texts taken from other journals: five representing other interdisciplinary fields and five representing specific disciplines.

This would enable them to determine whether IDR was distinct in its features, and also to see how much variation in discourse practices there might be between interdisciplinary fields and within disciplines.

They noted that research was increasingly bringing together scientists from different fields, and the investigation aimed to analyse how this development was reflected in the language used in scholarly articles and how trends in the discourse used could support research policy development.

The project was launched on 30 August and will run for two years under the direction of Thompson, director of Birmingham’s centre for corpus research.

Elsevier said it would provide free access to the journals’ content allowing for full text mining of the papers published and would also provide analytical support and help in contacting journal editors, reviewers, and authors for additional qualitative surveys and interviews.

For a more detailed description of this project, the research questions to be addressed and the user groups who will be approached, click here.