Risks and remedies for effective multidisciplinary research

Following my post about authorship networks, and the award of our multi-disciplinary AMR grant, I would like to share my thoughts on the structural risks of academic life to multidisciplinary research and some possible remedies.

Multidisciplinary research is of paramount importance. Many ‘big’ questions require a multidisciplinary approach: How to stop the spread of antimicrobial resistance? How to defeat cancer? How to measure gravity waves? How to land people on Mars?

Specifically, I will look at individualizing factors that  reward (or punish) academics or researchers as individuals rather than working together in multidisciplinary teams. Interestingly, these factors arise both from the traditional ‘scholarship’ model of academic life, and the modern ‘corporate/managerial’ model. For universities to best support multidisciplinary research it will require new thinking that both departs from the current managerial model, but also doesn’t go backwards to the traditional model.

Briefly, the individualizing factors from the traditional academic model are: the cult of individual brilliance; linear lists of research authors on publications; and research grants allowing only one PI. The individualizing factors from corporate university management are: individualized REF returns; workload planning models; performance targets; and strategic compulsory redundancies. And in the intersection between the traditional and corporate model: promotion. In detail then, each challenge followed by possible remedies:

Cult of individual brilliance. As academics, and as a society more generally, we are obsessed with the idea of brilliant individuals. Historically, ‘big’ research could be done by brilliant individuals. Charles Darwin, so we are told, got on a boat, looked at the birds in the Galapagos and came up with the theory of evolution. A similar story is told about  Einstein, trains and relativity. Sometimes we accept a great collaboration. Hardy and Ramanujan. Crick and Watson. Even among ‘normal’ (i.e. not world-changing) academics, humanities researchers speak of the ‘lone scholar’ while molecular biologists used to say ‘one grant, one post-doc, one protein’.  But actually these stories unravel. Take for example Crick and Watson. Most people now know that Rosalind Franklin played a pivital role in discovering the structure of DNA, and careful reading of the story reveal many other people who made critical contributions (e.g. Erwin Chargaff or Alec Stokes). Obsessions with big prizes do not help help: that Crick, Watsom and Wilkins got a big prize masks the fact that the discovery of the structure of DNA involved many contributions from many people.

How do we counter the obsession with individual brilliance? I think in truth almost all of us recognize that our work is not truly ‘our own’. We are all inspired by our teachers, our peers, our students, the people who wrote the brilliant paper we secretly wish we had written ourselves, or the people who wrote the mediocre paper who push us to do a better job. As long as we remember this, stop talking about big name prizes, and remove from our discourse the idea that ‘one person’ made some discovery – we can move forward. Importantly, we can have a big influence over the next generation in the way we teach. We have the opportunity to show to our students that the ‘big discoveries’ were mostly made by an interconnected collection of collaborators and rivals sharing ideas and being inspired by each other, not one or two heroes.

Linear lists of authors. This is a harder one to fix. Our research articles have a list of authors, and when we cite them, we typically only name the first on the list. Different fields have different conventions: some fields simply order from first to last in order of “importance of contribution”. In many sciences, the people who did the work get listed from the front, while the supervisors get listed from the back, so that first and last author have special prominence. In some fields authors are listed alphabetically. The problem with the normal convention in science is that hierarchies are established which give special prominence to two authors. How do you produce a fair author list for a complex, multidisciplinary study, where the findings reported result from genuinine collaboration between (say) three different laboratories?

So far, two main solutions have been employed. The first is to have joint first (or last) authorship. This works reasonably well insofar as a second author can indicate that their contribution is equal to the first. But it still suffers from the fact that one author is still listed first. The second solution has been to list author contributions. I remember when the idea was first touted it was said that a paper’s authors would become more like film credits than a linear list. But, rather than give informative detail, this has turned into a box-ticking excercise, with the contributions relegated to the bottom of the article.

In my previous post, I suggested a network view of authorship and contributions, rather than a linear list. To my mind, this solves many of the problems above. I received a number of questions about how the paper could be cited, and how credit would be quantified. To answer these, perhaps the network view could be enhanced in two ways. One possibility is to combine it with an alphabetic author list, so that there is no longer any hierarchy in that list. The second possibility – and I am not sure if I am sold on this – could be to (optionally) include a percentage contribution for each of the authors. This could satisfy the needs of those involved in bean-counting exercises (e.g. the REF).

Research grants allowing only one PI. Some grant organizations, for example RCUK, only allow a single PI on a grant. This means that where two or three people contribute equally to an application, their contributions cannot be equitably recognized. This situation is so easily remedied. The Wellcome Trust, for example, allows ‘Investigator Awards’ with two equal collaborators. Even the RCUK situation is inconsistent: two people from two different institutions can both be recognized as PIs, while if they were in the same institution one would have to be a co-I. We can call on all granting bodies to allow research grants to have more than one PI, listed as co-PIs, with joint and several responsibility for its delivery.

Individualized REF returns. For those outside British academia, you might be unaware of the REF (Research Excellence Framework): a process to apportion money between universities. University departments are assessed on the basis of their outputs (e.g. research papers that have already been peer reviewed and published) and then ranked. The REF can be criticized on many fronts; the problem with regards individualization is that departments need to decide which individual researchers to ‘submit’ to the REF and which not. Researchers submitted list their top four papers which are then given a number of ‘stars’ between 0 and 4. So with multidisciplinary papers from authors in the same department, this creates tension as to who ‘gets’ the papers for their REF return. And the stakes are high – an academic’s job is at risk if they are not submitted. Serious problem if two or three people in a department do their best work together and publish together.

Again, the remedy is simple. There is no need to individualize the return. The recent Stern review of the REF has suggested that different individuals in a department could return more or fewer papers – but it doesn’t go far enough! It would be just as easy to alter the REF so that university departments return their best papers – and these might be single or multi-disciplinary, involve one lab, two labs or many.

Workload planning models. Many universities in the UK are now implementing some kind of model of what work academics are doing, with points allocated for teaching, research and administrative duties. While on the one hand it is reasonable that tasks are shared in some equitable way, and on the other there is much to criticize about both the principle and practise of such models, here I will focus on the risks to multidisciplinary research that arise from individualization. Workload planning models are intrinsically individualizing. Each of us now has a ‘number’ on our heads – a proportion of a notional “100%” that we are supposed to be working – with risks of being too high (insufficient time for research) or too low (at best receiving an overload of tasks; at worst, redundancy). The problem is that we are judged as individuals – and need to ‘game’ the system as individuals.

Universities are complex, flat, structures, and a great deal of their success rely on acts of good will between colleagues (academic, technical and professional service). Historically, as academic staff, we are regularly doing favours for each other: standing in for tutorials, assessing and examing students, commenting on drafts of papers or grant applications and so forth. With the introduction of formal workload planning points, people start only doing those things that they get ‘points’ for. The helpful culture of saying ‘yes’ to your colleagues is at risk of being replaced with a culture of saying ‘no’.

Somewhere, somehow, these need to be pushed back against, so that we foster a collaborative environment. In the end, I think we need to argue against them for their weaknesses: it is impossible to compare teaching loads, research activity, administrative or leadership roles in a single system. Equity in teaching needs to be achieved through simpler measures of contact hours, not by risking collaborative environments through flawed metrics.

Performance targets don’t have to be individualizing but unfortunately frequently are. I am no fan of performance targets – but rather than critisize them outright, I will say here that where individuals are being told to be the PI on grants, or the lead author on papers, and that being a coI or middle author are being given less or no value, this will count against people carrying out collaborative work. There are many people, particularly those who have technology focussed laboratories (e.g. bioinformatics or mass spectrometry), who make very natural coIs on many grants – and that needs to be recognized and rewarded up to the highest levels. If there have to be performance targets at all, then at least these need to recognize collaborative working.

Strategic compulsory redundancies. There is nothing more individualizing than knowing that your job is on the line, and that you will be competing with your colleagues for a smaller number of jobs as part of a restructuring activity. I refer to ‘strategic’ redundancies as being a choice by the institution to cut jobs rather than to cut costs in other ways, e.g. infrastructure spend. (I contrast this with essential redundancies where the instutition as a whole is at risk and all spend is cut). Many institutions, even in the region where I live, have indulged in strategic redundancies. It is a disaster for multidisciplinary working if people are genuinely fearful about whether or not they will keep their jobs.

Quite simply, universities who wish to support multidisciplinary working should not indulge in strategic redundancies. This is a message the senior leadership teams need to hear and understand.

Promotion is probably the hardest of all to crack. Promotion is individual, whether seen through the traditional or managerial lens. Two people work very closely together on collaborative projects, and really neither would be able to be as successful in their research without the other. Could/should they be promoted together? (It is difficult to see how that might be implemented in any fair way). Can supporting the success of a colleague in of itself be part of a criterion for promotion?

On a different note, what about the technology-focussed academic I mentioned earlier (e.g. the bioinformatician or mass spectrometrist) who is coI on many grants, essential to many projects about the university, but rarely PI? Can this person be promoted on the basis of excellent collaborative venture? In order to support multidisciplinary research, universities need to recognize these types of contribution, and facilitate promotion to the highest levels on the basis of excellent collaborative, inter-disciplinary research.

The points I wish to make are not about any specific institution, but sector-wide. In the end, if we are to deliver on solving the big research questions, we need all of our employers to develop and foster environments that support and reward multidisciplinary research.






Brilliant assurances to our European staff, students and collaborators from our Pro-VC Research

The University of Nottingham’s Pro-VC for research – Jessica Corner – has just issued this wonderful assurance to our European staff, students and collaborators. I am posting it in full:

EU Referendum and research
Dear colleagues,

We know you may be anxious about the implications of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). I’m writing to reassure you that we value your contribution to The University of Nottingham. I’d also like to update you on some of the steps we are already taking to safeguard that contribution – and on our commitments for the future.

The University is committed to being a global institution and we recognise the value and significance of all of our EU and international researchers – whether they are research academics, post-docs or M.Phil/PhD students. As the UK’s Global University, we will do all that we are able to ensure that you have a productive and worthwhile experience, that our engagement with you continues into the future, and that your research develops to be world-leading, enhancing your opportunities for career development and contributing to the University’s reputation for high-quality research.

We value the contributions our international research community and international research links make towards achieving our goals for the University to be a world-class institution. While the UK Government advises that it may take at least two years for anything to change following on from the referendum, our University is being proactive now to ensure that our international and European engagement is maintained and enhanced.

We want you to benefit from this and will welcome your contributions and input for suggestions which can help pump-prime and cement long-term research relationships between our University and you as individuals and like-minded European and global universities that we want as our partners to address global research challenges.

Today, we make the following commitments:

  • To support all our international and European research students, researchers and academic staff within the University to be productive members of our global research community.
  • In particular, to support European research students by providing assurance that previously agreed tuition fees will not change, and will indeed continue for the remainder of the programme of study. This applies to current students, and those due to commence study in the 2016/17 academic year.
  • To be proactive in competing for international funding  from all sources including Horizon 2020 ERC and Marie Sklodowska-Curie programmes and Erasmus+ (with nothing changing until Article 50 is invoked and for a further two years as the UK’s disengagement from the EU – but not Europe – is negotiated).
  • To demonstrate the University’s commitment we will invest strategic funds in key European partnerships, including funds for PhD studentships, to pump-prime grants, to enable travel for European networking, and to fund visiting positions at Nottingham.
  • To put our full commitment into delivering current contracted EU projects to deliver the products of international research collaboration in terms of quality and impact.
    To be proactive in developing international and European links and collaborations with individuals and global institutions.
  • To work with the Russell Group, UUK and other representatives of the UK research community to lobby for the UK to continue to play a leading role in EU and international research. We will work tirelessly to make the case to the UK Government for the benefits of all forms of international research collaboration, mobility and exchange and to retain access to Horizon 2020 and other EU programmes to underpin these activities.

Nothing changes until Article 50 is invoked and the terms of the UK’s disengagement from the EU have been determined, which will take at least two years and maybe much longer.

However, in these uncertain times, the University will underwrite its commitments by drawing on its significant budgeted resources for international research collaboration to strengthen our long-established links with EU partners, fund postgraduate scholarships for EU citizens, and to address immediate challenges that arise as a result of the referendum. The University will redouble its commitment to build long-term and sustainable European research partnerships through research collaboration, through mobility and through doctoral training.

Our Professional Services can provide advice and guidance on dealing with specific referendum issues that may arise:

  • Postgraduate students should contact the Graduate School [contact details removed]
  • Academic and research staff should contact Research Enterprise and Graduate Services (REGS) [contact details removed] for issues related to current awards and planned and future proposals

FAQs for staff and students addressing immigration status, undergraduate funding and a range of other issues are also available (and being updated continually) at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/go/euref

Professor Dame Jessica Corner

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange

The University of Nottingham

London Review of Books: Stefan Collini reviews two books on UK Higher Education

This article is an excellent review of two books on the changes in the UK Higher Education System. It is excellent reading – making coherent arguments on all the points that we as academics know to be true:


The review is long and well worth reading in full. Here is the final paragraph:

“Future historians, pondering changes in British society from the 1980s onwards, will struggle to account for the following curious fact. Although British business enterprises have an extremely mixed record (frequently posting gigantic losses, mostly failing to match overseas competitors, scarcely benefiting the weaker groups in society), and although such arm’s length public institutions as museums and galleries, the BBC and the universities have by and large a very good record (universally acknowledged creativity, streets ahead of most of their international peers, positive forces for human development and social cohesion), nonetheless over the past three decades politicians have repeatedly attempted to force the second set of institutions to change so that they more closely resemble the first. Some of those historians may even wonder why at the time there was so little concerted protest at this deeply implausible programme. But they will at least record that, alongside its many other achievements, the coalition government took the decisive steps in helping to turn some first-rate universities into third-rate companies. If you still think the time for criticism is over, perhaps you’d better think again.”