The British Ecological Society has published a new Guide to Better Science on interdisciplinary research. Written by Lydia Cole and Althea Davies, the free guide is aimed at ecologists who are beginning to formulate their first interdisciplinary project idea, and offers case studies and practical tips from researchers from multiple disciplines. Here, Lydia and Althea tell us more about their motivations for writing the guide.

Guides to Better Science: Interdisciplinary Research can be downloaded for free from the BES website

Why do ecologists need to learn about interdisciplinary research?

Because ecologists (and any other -gist for that matter!) do not work on closed systems, isolated from the influence of external forces. All ecosystems are a complex mixture of interacting biological and physical components, influenced by the ambient climate, by local geological features, by historical and pre-historical environmental change, and by the activities of people, now and in the past. Understanding how an ecosystem functions and responds to ongoing change – the central research agenda for most ecologists – requires a learned understanding of those component parts. And those component parts, especially understanding the dynamics of environmental change, will involve addressing direct and indirect human threats. This provides a strong motivation for ecologists to work with other disciplines, especially within the social sciences, where understanding human values and decision-making processes are the focus.

As ecologists, we have to work with other disciplines to answer our questions in a useful way for the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems.

But working with others can be a challenge, especially when you speak a different disciplinary language and gather your knowledge using very different methods. This is especially true if one person speaks and works in numbers and statistics and the other in words and meanings. The quantitative-qualitative ‘divide’ can be tricky to navigate without explicitly acknowledging and addressing it by using a variety of approaches to purposefully build a bridge over the gap and regularly take trips over it! These issues lie at the heart of interdisciplinary research, which aims to synthesise ideas from two or more academic disciplines to create new knowledge that answers a common question.

What prompted you to write this guide?

The fact that many people are unsure how to build that bridge or fear that pursuing interdisciplinarity is the wrong career move: one that may be seen as a step away from disciplinary excellence rather than forward-thinking. Many researchers (including the two of us) excitedly dive into interdisciplinary conversations, motivated by the overlapping motivations and shared interests, without necessarily considering how the complexity of that ‘interdisciplinary’ component will play out over time:  for example, how to find a common language for communication or manage data differences when working towards publication. We hope that this guide helps individuals leading or participating in interdisciplinary projects consider what actions can be taken, and when in the project’s life, to facilitate more effective interdisciplinary working. It’s a socio-ecological guide to building a resilient interdisciplinary bridge, perhaps!

Did anything surprise you while researching and writing the guide?

The process of bringing the guide together, and running the workshop which initiated it, made us realise the degree of additional time and effort that has to go into an interdisciplinary project, from the start and at all stages, to make it actually ‘work’. And that time and effort has to be purposeful and involve contribution from everyone on the team. And we’re not taught that! We also learnt how many people submit photos of birds to the BES’ Capturing Ecology competition! [The guide is illustrated with photos from Capturing Ecology.]

Who was involved in the process?

People who inspired us through demonstration of their successful interdisciplinary endeavours, strong project leadership, reflective approach to their work and accessible communication style. We’re so grateful for the willingness of all contributors to input some of their experience and wisdom to this guide, from the world of ecology, but also human geography and business studies. You can find interdisciplinary tools in all trades.

What do you hope readers will take away from the guide?

Practical steps to take when conceiving, planning, or participating in an interdisciplinary project. We hope the reader will pick up this guide as they start to formulate a new project idea, consider what actions might be needed to make it truly interdisciplinary, and then refer back at all stages of that project to help emplace the tools and establish the practices for effective team work across disciplines. And perhaps occasionally to troubleshoot when interdisciplinary work isn’t quite going to plan.

What non-ecology paper/book would recommend to an ecologist and why?

What idea, issue or reading turns your attention to interdisciplinarity is inevitably a personal reaction, but for me [Althea], a desire to understand how different values influence ecosystems has often sparked these conversations. One book that sprung to mind is Emma Marris’ Rambunctious Garden (2011) because it combines environmental history with conservation to ask how we make future choices involving human and ecological values.

Lydia Cole is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews. She is also the Chair of the BES Conservation Ecology Special Interest Group. Her work to date has focused on the ecology and dynamics of human interaction with tropical peatland ecosystems in Malaysia and Peru. The research in the peatlands of the Peruvian Amazon, on which Althea also works, has involved a large interdisciplinary and international team.

Althea Davies is a lecturer in the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews. She is a palaeoecologist and environmental geographer: her work focuses on human-environment interactions, particularly how past management affects current conservation values. Geographically, her work focuses mainly on peaty landscapes in the UK uplands and Peruvian Amazon. She is co-secretary of the BES Palaeoecology Special Interest Group.

Guides to Better Science are the British Ecological Society’s free guides to promote research excellence, ideal for those embarking on a career in research or for those needing a useful refresher. Each guide offers plenty of practical tips from a wide range of ecologists – an invaluable resource for students and their supervisors all around the world. In the series:

  • Peer Review
  • Data Management
  • How to Get Published
  • Reproducible Code
  • Promoting Your Research
  • Interdisciplinary Research

All the guides are free to download and share from the BES website.