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by Philippa Grand
9th April 2020

In August 2019 I was appointed Publisher for Interdisciplinarity at Bristol University Press (BUP), in what is the first role of its kind within an academic publishing house. This interest is not a new phenomenon: scholarly publishers have long been grappling with interdisciplinarity and looking at ways to respond to its growing popularity within the academy: the megajournal, free from disciplinary boundaries and often Open Access, has been one of the main ways publishers have sought to provide a solution to the challenge of publishing cross-disciplinary work.

I have spent the last seven months exploring what interdisciplinarity is and how it is changing university structures, research and teaching, and speaking to many academics from the UK and internationally about what they need from publishers. What has become clear is that interdisciplinarity is part of a wider trend linked to the emphasis within universities role in solving global social challenges. This focus has also led to an interest in participatory and co-produced knowledge, is influencing teaching, is giving a new sense of purpose to the notion of impact and, I would argue, also gives added impetus to the decolonial turn within academia.

Interdisciplinarity itself is not a new phenomenon – Roberta Frank has traced the first use of the word to a meeting of the Social Science Research Council in New York in 1926, and the number of papers with ‘interdisciplinarity’ in their title has been on an upward trajectory since the 1950s. However, the 21st century has seen its popularity reach an all-time high, and this is largely because it is seen as fundamental in solving the global social challenges of the 21st century. One discipline alone cannot solve the multifaceted, complex problems, challenges and crises we face in the decades to come.

John Robinson, Professor at the University of British Columbia, describes this as ‘issue-driven’ interdisciplinarity. It starts with real world concerns and is driven by a desire to engage with problems that originate in the non-academic world, rather than taking debates within academic journals as a starting point for further research (what Robinson calls ‘discipline-based’ interdisciplinarity). It’s also interesting to consider what is driving this current ‘challenge focused’ approach within research – in the UK this is possibly due to a combination of the Sustainable Development Goals, the impact agenda, which prioritises research that makes a measurable difference to society, and an increasingly politically engaged and socially aware student body that demands more from their university experience in a world where information is available at the click of a button.

But interdisciplinarity and new collaborations between academic disciplines is in itself not enough to solve the global challenges society faces. Academics increasingly are looking to draw on a broader range of expertise, especially those who have front-line experience of dealing with problems on the ground: experts who exist in a myriad of roles beyond the university. This type of collaboration is not merely about drawing on experts as interviewees or subjects of research, bit involving them as equals in the co-creation and co-production of research.

Involving non-academic experts in research projects as equals raises questions about the nature of expertise and knowledge formulation and, crucially, produces new types of research output beyond the academic journal or book. Research Centres such as Mistra Urban Futures have been at the forefront of championing the need for and value of participatory research in solving modern-day problems.

Seemingly separate from the new focus on interdisciplinarity and co-production, the debates kick-started by the #RhodesMustFall movement and the decolonial turn within universities are further encouraging new types of collaboration and engagement, this time between researchers in the global North and South. This goes hand in hand with a growing interest in indigenous knowledge in the Westernised university. As Isabella Aboderin, the new Perivoli Chair in Africa Research and Partnerships at the University of Bristol says, “we need a fairer intellectual endeavour” between the North and South. But this is not just about redressing a (long overdue) imbalance. Those in the global South are often at the vanguard of dealing directly with global challenges, particularly climate change, which in many cases, have been caused by the actions and lifestyles of those in the global North. Not only do scholars and experts in the South hold essential knowledge, but indigenous worldviews, such as the South American concept of buen vivir, point to how, globally we might envisage a more sustainable and equitable future.

All this points to a research culture that is transforming, increasingly valuing new types of collaboration, placing greater value on a broader range of expertise than before, and shifting from the notion of the university to the pluriversity.

How much might all this just be a current fad? A recent Times Higher article explored this very question. But in my discussions with academics, many believe there is no turning back, that moving beyond traditional, siloed, university-centric and Westernised approaches to research is long overdue and of urgent necessity. A recent blog by Hetan Shah, newly-appointed CEO of the British Academy, argues that those in humanities and social sciences must work together with STEM scholars. Flavia Schlegel, the International Science Council’s Special Envoy for Science in Global Policy, told a conference on transdisciplinarity that the traditional academic system was a response to the world as it was in the 19th century and it’s not a system that is fit for purpose today. Funders are also proactively driving this change, pursuing an agenda that forefronts collaborative research practices. In the UK this agenda is being propelled by UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund; in the US the National Science Foundation is due to invest $30million in building what it calls ‘convergence research’. And teaching is also evolving. The growth in popularity of the multidisciplinary BASc degree and the launch of the London Interdisciplinarity School show how these changes are affecting the university overall and may be longer term trends.

So what is BUP’s role here?

We have long championed research on the key global social challenges of our times, both at a local and global level, from publications on poverty on a housing estate in Nottingham to migration, climate change and conflict internationally. We have always supported participatory research, as the publisher of Peter Beresford’s work – one of the leading figures of this approach – and of the outputs of the Connected Communities project. We see the value of experiential knowledge, and publish on the relationship of research to the wider worlds of policy and practice. We are known for our publishing on issues – ageing, children and youth, social care – as much as our focus on specific disciplines. We see the potential of Open Access in improving usage, impact and equity of research.

How might publishing adapt to support these new research practices? We need to better understand the challenges scholars face in publishing challenge-led research and the unique nature of this type of work. At BUP we see our interest in academic knowledge practices as a natural extension of our mission and look to support scholars as they explore how research is evolving, both in terms of the processes, methods, concepts and theories of these new practices, but also in terms of the substantive outputs of interdisciplinary or co-produced research that seeks to address the complex problems the world faces. We want to collaborate with those producing innovative research outputs and push boundaries to explore how online and digital formats might offer creative publishing solutions to those working in new ways. We need to address the challenge to publish in modes that will be equally recognised and valued across STEM and AHSS subjects. It is now imperative that, like the academy, we too forefront indigenous knowledge, publish the work of scholars from the global South and ensure the global reach of research. University Presses have a crucial role in the research ecosystem, in part helping to define what ‘knowledge’ is: it’s now vital that we are part of the conversation about how knowledge practices are evolving and how publishing needs to evolve too.

Find out more about our Challenge-Led Research Practices publishing here. If you have a proposal you wish to discuss, please email philippa.grand@bristol.ac.uk.