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Interdisciplinary Research and Team Science

Many consider interdisciplinarity to be synonymous with teamwork. It is not. Individuals engage successfully in a variety of solo interdisciplinary activities, ranging from borrowing tools, methods, and concepts from another discipline to teaching courses that migrate to a new hybrid interdiscipline. Moreover, a team may not necessarily be interdisciplinary.

A Core Vocabulary

Klein and Roessner’s (2014) spectrum of keywords reflects differing degrees of integration in a continuum of multi-, inter-, and trans-disciplinary activities.


Klein, J.T. (2014). "Interdisciplinarity and Transdisciplinarity: Keyword Meanings for Collaboration Science and Translational Medicine." Journal of Translational Medicine and Epidemiology, 2(2): 1024.

As the keywords of multidisciplinarity suggest, members of a team who have different disciplinary expertise might have a common interest in a particular problem, question, or theme. However, their specialized insights are juxtaposed. At best, they appear in segmented serial order, although multidisciplinarity plays a valuable role in expanding the scope of available knowledge and approaches.

Teamwork becomes interdisciplinary when proactive integration occurs through interactions that link, blend, and synthesize separate approaches.

Team collaboration becomes transdisciplinary in two major circumstances:

  • (1) With the emergence of new conceptual and methodological frameworks in broad areas of scholarship, such as sustainability and health and wellness, and the emergence of overarching syntheses such as general systems theory and feminist theory; and
  • (2) When stakeholders from multiple sectors of society participate in solving "real-world" problems.

In both cases, existing disciplinary approaches and interdisciplinary combinations of them are transcended with the intent of transforming them.

An Evolving Relationship

The term "interdisciplinarity" has a longer history than the term "team science." Yet, the relationship has long been recognized. It is dated conventionally to the early 1920s, with the founding of the Social Science Research Council. The term “interdisciplinarity” was shorthand for research that crossed the Council’s seven disciplinary societies, focused on social problems such as poverty, crime, and war. World War II, though, was a watershed in this history, highlighted by the Manhattan Project and the beginnings of operations research. “Interdisciplinary task force management” was also a notable feature of military operations, civilian affairs, engineering projects, feasibility studies, and industrial R&D concentrated on a collaborative approach to a specific problem. By the 1960s, interdisciplinarity was a recognized force in space research. By the 1970s and 1980s, demands for interdisciplinary teamwork heightened in science-based areas of manufacturing, computer sciences, biomedicine and pharmaceuticals, and high technology. This approach also became prominent with the emergence of molecular biology and large-scale projects such as the Human Genome Project.

Structures of interdisciplinary collaboration have differed over time. The presence of laboratories, centers, and institutes to solve military problems during the World War II era accustomed academic administrators to having large-scale, collaborative projects on campuses. Yet, many did not last beyond that era. In subsequent decades, the most familiar arrangements in academic institutions were matrix structures, program units superimposed on an existing hierarchy organized around separate disciplines or functional specialties. Centers and institutes were the most visible forms, though in the 1980s and 1990s new alliances emerged, bridging academic and industrial sectors through new partnerships such as joint mergers and entrepreneurial firms.

For a fuller account of this history and pertinent references, see:

The Twin Pillars of Collaboration and Integration

Over the past two decades the sense that both interdisciplinarity and collaboration are now central to research has heightened. This belief circulates widely in reports of science-policy bodies and disciplinary and professional societies. Initial studies tended to apply management and organizational theories of the day to studies of interdisciplinary collaboration, with emphasis on organizational structures, leadership, and types of teams. Over time, the focus expanded from managing teams and organizational units to the complex behavioral dynamics of collaboration and the challenges of creating favorable research cultures and larger institutional environments.

The twin pillars of an integrative approach to team science in the literature are collaboration and integration. There is no universal formula. Teams differ by goals and tasks, project scope and scale, composition, institutional setting, styles of administrative coordination, modes of interaction, and the type of inter- or trans-disciplinarity being practiced. Yet, a number of generic factors enhance prospects for success. At early stages, collaborative readiness, antecedent conditions, and role clarification and negotiation are vital. As the research process unfolds, members of teams also need to continue clarifying differences in disciplinary language, methods, tools, concepts, and perceptions of their roles. These and other factors underscore a crucial difference between solo and collaborative interdisciplinarity: the bridging of cognitive and social dynamics of knowledge production. The problems of interdisciplinary teams are legion, however, including disciplinary territoriality and conflicts, status differences, and conflicting perceptions of collaborative projects. Collaboration requires consensus building, mutuality, and interdependence based on trust and respect for others' inputs.

For an overview of interdisciplinary cognition in relation to the ecological contexts in which it occurs, see:

For an overview of team science, see:

Integration is widely regarded as the crux of inter- and trans-disciplinarity. Models of integration are based in operational theory, studies of human behavior, sociocultural and sociotechnical theories of group interaction, communication theory, decision theory, and the hybrid social, cognitive, educational, organizational, and industrial psychologies. Shortfalls of integration occur when collaboration is shallow rather than deep, forums for exchange are inadequate, participants settle for reductive solutions, infrastructure is lacking, and institutional impediments trump even the best of intentions.

Stage models depict the process of inter- and trans-disciplinary research as a series of steps. For instance, Stokols, Hall, and Vogel (2013) identify four phases in transdisciplinary research and practice: development, conceptualization, implementation, and translation.

Increased attention has also been paid in recent years to comparative methodology, drawing from a large repertoire of options. Well known methods for achieving integration include systems theory and modeling, Delphi and scenario building, simulation, concept mapping, computer synthesis of data and information flow, and integrated environmental assessment and risk management. McDonald, Bammer, and Deane (2009) have identified 14 dialogue methods for research methods in addressing real-world problems. Matthias, Bergmann, and colleagues (2012) have produced a "primer for practice" composed of major methods for transdisciplinary research practice.

Recommended literature on integration in research collaboration:

Pathways to Further Resources

This overview has identified places to begin exploration of a very large literature. A number of other key topics are also particularly relevant, and related readings are recommended here.

Successful outcomes of interdisciplinary team science, for instance, are associated with the quality of communication on a research team. It is a generative process involving mutual learning of the specialized languages of team members and iterative review of emerging assumptions and results. In the course of working together, team members co-produce interlanguages that combine everyday language, specialist terms, and new conceptual vocabularies emerging from interactions around a common problem or question.

For an overview of inter- and transdisciplinary communication, see:

A number of websites also guide users to further literature. The website that hosts this blog, the Team Science Toolkit, is a user-generated repository of information and other resources that supports the practice and study of team science. It contains over 1000 resources, including practical tools to support successful team-based research, measures and metrics to evaluate or study team science processes and outcomes, and bibliographic entries. The Science of Team Science [SciTS] Mendeley group features cross-disciplinary and inter-professional exchange of information and resources. Members can search resources in the database, create subgroups, and add resources and comments.

Finally, Wayne State University's Division of Research provides a model for serving local needs throughonline annotated bibliographies and coaching and training modules that anyone may access, free-of-charge. The bibliographies include a Beginning Bibliography on Interdisciplinarity and Resources for Interdisciplinary Education. The training modules highlight key resources with tips on how to use them in the areas of Barriers and Strategies, Education and Training, Evaluation, Tenure and Promotion, and Resources for Team Science. A forthcoming module on Leadership is also planned.

For further explanations of terminology see:

About the Author

Julie Thompson Klein, Ph.D., Faculty Fellow for Interdisciplinary Development, Division of Research, and Professor of Humanities, English Department, Wayne State University.

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Add Comments

Defining the dimensions of interdisciplinary, Monday, October 6, 2014

By Joy Frechtling

Your blog on interdisciplinarity and team science provides a very useful overview of the term and the various points along the continuum from disciplinarity to transdisciplinarity. In work we are doing for NSF, we have define “discipline” to mean not only field of study, but also field of practice. By this definition, a team that has individuals with degrees in the same fields but who work on different points along the research to practice to continuum would be considered interdisciplinary in make-up. Is this consistent with your thinking?

Multi-, inter-, transdisciplinary team science, Monday, October 6, 2014

By Michael Steketee

This post is a great discussion of complex and relevant topics in studying team science. Setting aside the difficulty of creating team science and establishing team science programs, as a program evaluator I am particularly interested in identifying and assessing team science. Disciplinary, multi-, inter-, trans-disciplinary are frequently used terms, but definitions and clarity of term use is crucial – being clear about the aspect of team science being studied and how these terms are operationalized are both crucial. For example, one could study team composition, team interactions, and/or research products when examining the “degree of integration” resulting from team science. Based on Klein and Roessner’s spectrum I would not expect to classify a team’s composition as interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary, these terms by definition don’t seem suited in describing the disciplinary backgrounds of teams. I would guess that at best a team could be composed of researchers of various disciplinary backgrounds and thus deemed multidisciplinary (even if some have multiple disciplines in their personal backgrounds). Their interactions, collaborative efforts, and research products are what could be termed interdisciplinary. However, attempting to identify and observe interdisciplinary interactions is a difficult proposition, so one might solely rely on the research products of team science to examine if interdisciplinary research was conducted, as products are readily available for study. Finally, I have trouble conceiving what transdisciplinary team science would look like, which may be because there aren’t many examples of transdisciplinary research. Regarding Klein and Roessner’s spectrum, I don’t see how we would use that term to describe team composition or team interactions, perhaps to describe or classify team science products. In theory that seems possible (a transdisciplinary research product), but practically I'd like help in identifying some examples of transdisciplinary research. I don’t find the “two major circumstances” of transdisciplinary team collaboration to fit with the description of what transdisciplinary research is – the first seems too general, a more concrete example would be helpful; and in the second circumstance, I don’t understand why solving “real-world” issues makes something transdisciplinary.

Funding Team Science and SciTS, Tuesday, October 7, 2014

By Keith MacAllum

Team science has a long history and will only continue to grow in complexity and importance as science tackles ever more complicated questions. Projects like mapping the human genome, building the large Hadron collider, and establishing Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Centers are just a few truly large scale examples that capture our attention. However, the science of team science is still relatively young. And most science takes place on a much smaller scale than the examples cited above, are not as well resourced, and often have narrower windows of time to accomplish their objectives. Project directors and principal investigators need a new set of tools and procedures so they can harness the power of team science at all levels. Funders should be paying close attention to the evolution and implications of team science. There is an obvious need to sponsor more research designed to gain a better understanding of the factors that determine readiness for collaboration and the capacity for integration. At the same time, funders should begin to more explicitly call for the documentation of team science processes within the projects that they support. This would expedite the discovery process and help build a knowledge base emerging from naturally occurring experiments that demand interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary practice.

Author Replies to Blog Responses, Thursday, October 9, 2014

By Julie Thompson Klein

I appreciate all of these responses and thank each poster for investing in the vitality of the Toolkit site. I’m teaching a class right now in which the qualities that make for a successful online community comprise a major topic. You three help to advance this one by your participation. Kevin MacAllum is right on the mark when stressing the importance of building a knowledge base, in this case one that would intersect team science and inter- and trans-disciplinary practice at all scales. Joy Frechtling underscores the importance of not only thinking in terms of a continuum, but questioning older and simpler definitions of “discipline” that have been eclipsed by their growing complexity and intersections with multiple disciplines and fields. So yes, Joy, your comment is consistent with what I have learned from studying the changing discourse of disciplinary boundaries. Even in the same discipline–say psychology-the difference between a quantitative and a qualitative approach can be greater than the distance between laboratory-based clinical knowledge and behavioral understanding in natural settings. Michael Steele reminds us, as well, of the importance of careful definition that takes account of context. Complication arises when conceptualizing inter- and trans-disciplinarity apart from contemporary practices of disciplines. I would still look for their degree of integration, however, in asking whether they are moving towards an approach that is great than the simple sum of their disciplinary parts. As for examples, I agree that definition, like theory, must be tested in the forge of natural settings. Fortunately, though, there is a growing knowledge base of examples and tested models (echoing Kevin again). The SciTS Toolkit identifies many of them, as does the Network for Transdisciplinary Research website (td-net) and other key publications I mentioned. The challenge, though, is to make them more widely known and engage in comparative analysis of their lessons. I would welcome collaboration with you and others to do so. Finally, well said Michael: “real-world” has been a keyword in interdisciplinary research for a long time. It is not exclusive to transdisciplinarity, even though the term has heightened cache in that discourse now.