Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Problems with Multidisciplinarity

An interesting article in the Times Higher this week highlights the problems that peer review has with multidiscliplinary projects. The example they give is of an article, published by Science, reporting the findings of a multidisciplinary project that claimed to have found a way to identify all enzyme activity in a cell. It turned out that the project had made some fundamental mistakes in the chemical analysis, but that these hadn't been picked up in the peer review of the article because no chemists had been asked to look at it. It was just too multidisciplinary, and not all the scientific bases had been covered.

THE's contention is that current peer review systems are not up to the task of assessing multidisciplinary research. It's just too broad for them, and the journal format is not big enough to contain the shades of grey, and the quantity of data, needed to do the research justice.

Some have suggested that journals should adopt the working practice of funders, whereby individual reviewers provide reports, but a decision is made collectively by a panel.

However, my experience has been that multidisciplinary research, whilst encouraged by the CEOs and strategists at the funders, is often sidelined by the panels. Individual panellists tend to either think that they can't comment on a project which falls outside of their expertise, or will not treat it as a priority as its not squarely within their discipline. Mark Walport, Wellcome's chief, makes a similar point: 'you can end up making decisions on the basis of the least imaginative member of the group.'

There are certainly benefits to be had from multidiscplinary working, but also dangers, as was clear from the Grants Factory workshop earlier this term. I guess the lesson to take away from this is to do your homework and be prepared. See who is in the review college or on the panel, and who is likely to take the lead on your reviewing your application. Look at their background and work out whether they will be hostile to or supportive of your proposal, and try and gear your Case for Support towards their interests or understanding. It's tough, I know, to put in this extra effort, but it might just pay dividends when you're asking reviewers to take a punt on a new, interesting - but ultimately risky - collaboration.

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