Is collaborative research just for scientists?

Some years ago I sat on a promotions committee in my then university, and one of the things that struck me was that almost every scientist seeking promotion presented evidence of collaborative research – working with another colleague, a postgraduate student or with industry. It was clear that these colleagues believed that jointly conducted research was a sign of excellence, and other members on the panel with a science background concurred. On the other hand, every single candidate from the humanities and social sciences stressed the fact that they had worked alone and that they would not require funding support.

No scientist, or at least none that I have comes across, would have any doubt or hesitation about collaborative research. Academics from the arts and humanities, however, often consider joint research work to be inferior and intellectually suspect. Just last week I heard another little diatribe from one lecturer who told me that all he needs is a room with a desk; here he can get on with his work in a solitary environment. Partnering with another lecturer in his own area would be unnecessary, and could provide opportunities for plagiarism, he felt. Partnering with colleagues in the sciences or even engineering would, in his view, be ‘bizarre’. The suggestions aired from time to time for such collaboration were, in his view, mischievous and would if implemented wreck the integrity of academic work.

How all this will play out in future is hard to predict. But for many members of the public, what they expect of universities is not disciplinary purity, but rather a capacity for researchers to answer the major questions facing society – about illness and health, about security, about sustainability, about ethics and high standards. Almost none of these questions can be answered from within one disciplinary area. In this setting the idea of academics locked away in small offices beavering away on their own, writing about the mating habits of grasshoppers, brings out a lot of anti-university sentiment.

Research methods cannot of course be forced on unwilling academics. But it may be time for the humanities academics themselves to consider the potential for more interdisciplinarity and collaboration.

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9 Comments on “Is collaborative research just for scientists?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Interdisciplinarity means very different things in the sciences and in the humanities/social sciences for one basic reason: there is no conflict between chemistry and physics or microbiology and biochemistry so there are no intellectual obstacles to people from such disciples working together. But economists, literary theorists, psychologists, sociologists etc have fundamentally different views of the world (& different languages) so a conversation, never mind collaboration, is very difficult. So although we might work on the different floors in the same building we may as well be in different universes. Collaboration across “party lines” does happen but its rare. Certainly in economics, inter-disciplinary work was very low status although that has changed significantly in recent years due to the growth of neuro- and behavioural economics.
    As for collaboration in general its partly a matter of taste and partly what you work on. If your work requires lots of data,labs etc then it is likely to be collaborative but if someone can be effective as the lone scholar fine.
    I like collaboration and I am lucky to have some fantastic co-authors but I make a point of having about half my work sole-authored: its a good discipline having to write the whole damn thing yourself.
    It also needs to be remembered that concepts of co-authorship vary. If you look at many science papers there are invariably many authors. As I understand it is quite common for some of them to have done little or no work at all on the paper. This is not done, in my experience, in the social sciences in general.

  2. F de Londras Says:

    I suspect the person you were speaking with is more of the exception than the rule these days. Most early/mid-career active and ambitious researchers do at least some collaborative research, many across disciplines (although primarily across the social sciences).

  3. Vincent Says:

    You would think that Archaeology and History would be bedfellows. Not a bit of it. One looks at the other as ill evidenced artsy witchcraft with dangerous leaning to the sciences. Having said that, the majority of historiographers look at anything after 1870ish as journalism. But that’s the notion of many Medievalists of anything after about 1700.
    While most Classicists view any study that hadn’t existed during the time under their study as so much howling at the moon. But having said that they are more willing than most to absorb newer ways to look at things.
    For yourself, You try imposing a new theory on Industrial relations of the 1780s where they pertain to Ireland and see how far you get. Leastwise, you had better find a new industry before you try.
    Collaboration in the Sciences is a relatively easy excercise for all are singing from the same sheet. There is very little ‘pure’ creation.

  4. Jilly Says:

    There seems to be a conflation here between interdisciplinarity and collaborative research…


    • Jilly, that’s a good point, and the conflation is perhaps my fault as I did not distinguish sufficiently between collaboration and interdisciplinarity. Both raise important issues, but I agree that collaboration can be (and very often is) in the same subject area.

  5. otto Says:

    One additional point: in the hard sciences, there is often one member of the team who ‘owns’ the funding stream, and that position can be used, even if informally, as a mechanism for resolving intellectual disputes. When research requires or in any event receives much less funding, this conflict-resolution mechanism is unavailable.

    • kevin denny Says:

      I don’t find this a problem: when I disagree with a collaborator we argue it out. I won some, I lose some. When I was very junior & working with someone very senior I didn’t argue much as I didn’t know much. But a good senior author, like a supervisor, will listen & then explain why you are probably wrong.

  6. Ernie Ball Says:

    The source of much perplexity surrounding this question is to be found in a mistaken idea about what some of the core humanities subjects actually do. This is a direct result of the Faustian bargain those disciplines struck when the German model for the research university became almost universal. The bargain went like this: henceforth, the entire university must be devoted to research, therefore the humanities must also do research. In the nineteenth century, it might’ve seemed probable (to some anyway) that what the humanities do is accurately described as “research”: making “discoveries” that result in “knowledge” about the world. Indeed, our entire secondary school curriculum and the Leaving Cert that serves as its capstone are predicated on just such a primitive monistic conception of human knowledge: knowledge is about discovering and amassing facts about the world.

    It doesn’t seem to have occurred to most people, even many of those working in core humanities disciplines like philosophy, history, literary studies and classics, that what we do is not accurately described as “research” or making “discoveries.” To the extent that such discoveries are made (e.g., a new manuscript by such-and-such canonical author is discovered, it is determined that Shakespeare did write the works attributed to him, a new fact emerges about the precipitant causes of the decline of the Soviet Union, etc.) they are in no way the important part of the work that is carried out in humanities disciplines. They are incidental. The important work has nothing to do with discovering things. Instead, it has to do with taking part in centuries-long conversations and taking positions within them, perhaps (if one is lucky or insighful), inflecting them in a new direction. It is about exploring and making explicit ideological (in the non-pejorative sense) ways of looking at the world. Romanticism, Utilitarianism, Christianity, Surrealism, Liberalism, Stoicism, etc. are not the names of movements based around discoveries. They are ways of looking at the world. It is the task of the humanities to develop and explore those ways of looking at the world. In so doing, they provide answers (plural) to vexing questions. But none of them are the answer and none of them are the result of “discoveries” (that “research” implies) rather than “inventions.”

    Think I’m kidding? Ask someone in a literature department or a philosophy department to give you even one “discovery” from their field that has now been established. If they are able to provide even one, it will be trivial.

    So when even eminences like Ferdinand recur to the monistic, 19th-century view that all disciplines are engaged in research and that they ought therefore to be able to “answer the major questions facing society – about illness and health, about security, about sustainability, about ethics and high standards” and that the means for doing so is “research” and investigation and discovery they fundamentally misunderstand what such “research” is about in the humanities. They are asking some of those disciplines to provide what they cannot provide, for such disciplines are not involved in “research” as the general population understands the word. They are involved in exploring what it is to be human. When we insist that the humanities “researcher” be as “productive” as those working in the sciences, we similarly misunderstand what such “research” entails and aims at (the name for this particular ideology is neoliberal puritanism, as a humanities scholar might tell you). And when we insist that the best way to make “discoveries” that can “answer” the questions that vex the society at large is to work in teams, we have profoundly misunderstood the working and purpose of these disciplines. Or, in short, because the humanities aren’t about discovering anything or even about resolving real-world problems, there’s no reason to collaborate even though like-minded individuals may choose to.

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    A propos: here’s a short text by a wise man that’s worth reading. It’s in French, alas, but a translation can apparently be found in Leys’ collection The Angel and the Octopus.


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