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May 21, 2005

The inter-disciplinary politics of interdisciplinary research or, "Hey, that was my idea first."

A few days ago, Eszter Hargittai posted a rant on the joint-blog Crooked Timber about the entre of physicists into the subfield in sociology of social networks and her perception of their contributing mostly nothing of value. Her entry was prompted by this paper about the EuroVision Contest. I learned about the entry first when she reproduced it on the social networking listserv SOCNET; a list on which I lurk mostly because I'm too cheap to pay the membership fee and also because I mainly use it as a way to collect journal references for sociology literature. References which I imagine to myself that I'll read or use one day, although given the poor job I'm currently doing at keeping up with the recent papers in my own field, I may realistically never get around to. (This point is salient, and I'll return to it momentarily.) In the ensuing and relatively lively debate in the post's comments section, someone called for and then received attention from friend Cosma Shalizi, who blogs his own thoughts on the subject in his usual lengthy, heavily cross-referenced and edifying way.

Several meta-commentary thoughts come immediately to mind:

1. Cosma's points are extremely thoughtful and are likely right on the money in terms of seeing the merits of both physicists contributions to social sciences and the argument of their reinvention of wheels. Most relevant to the rant about physicists not contributing anything of value to the field of social networks, he gives four excellent and broad examples of how physicists have added to our knowledge.

2. One of these points, which bears rehashing here, is that physicists are not just interested in social networks (it unfortunately illustrates the irony of the sociologists claims of academic injustice that this observation is abscent from their complaints). Physics training, and particularly that of statistical mechanics, the subfield that most physicists interested in social networks hail from, emphasizes that items of inquiry can, to as great an extent as possible, be treated as interchangeable. Thus, complex networks is the idea that social networks are just one kind of network. The progress physicists have made in carving out the field of complex networks has been somewhat spotty, perhaps because of their not knowing entirely how much of statistical mechanics to import and how much of a reliance on numerical simulation is reasonable (this touches on a related point, that there is not a firm consensus on how computational modeling and simulation should be incorporated into science to the same degree that theory and empiricism have been). If they have been arrogant toward other fields in their attempts to do this, then they should be chastised through letters to the editor of the journals that publish the offending articles. With regard to the EuroVision Contest article, Eszter Hargittai and Kieran Healy's best recourse is to write such a letter to Physica A illustrating that the work is not novel.

3. A point which Cosma omits in his list is connection to social network analysis, via complex network analysis, a large body of mathematical techniques from physics such as percolation theory (he does point out the contribution via network epidemiology), group renormalization, random graph theory, ideas of entropy and techniques for modeling dynamic systems. I may be wrong on these contributions, since I will easily admit that I don't read enough sociology literature. (Update: Cosma notes that sociologists and affiliated statisticians were familiar with Erdos-Renyi random graph theory before the physicists came along.)

4. There's a deeper issue at play here, which Cosma has also discussed (his prolificness is truly impressive, even more so given its high quality). Namely, that there are more physicists than there is funding (or interest?) for physics problems. While I was at Haverford, one of my physics professors told me, without a hint of a smile, that in order to get a job in traditional physics, you basically had to work at one of the national laboratories, work at a particle accelerator laboratory, or work in condensed matter physics. None of these seemed particularly appealing, yet the ideas and approaches of physics were. So, it is perhaps entirely expected that similar folks in my position eventually branch out into other fields. This is, after all, the nature of interdisciplinary research, and physicists (along with mathematicians and, to a lesser degree, chemists) seem particularly well-equipped for this kind of adventure. With the rising emphasis among both funding agencies and universities for interdisciplinary research (which may or may not be simply lip-service), the future likelihood of inter-disciplinary ego-bruising seems high.

5. Obviously, in any scientific endeavor, interdisciplinary or otherwise, scientists should understand the literature that came before (I dislike the term "master", because it implies an amount of time-commitment that I think few people can honestly claim to have spent with literature). In my recent referee work for Physical Review E, I have routinely chastised authors for not writing better introductions that leave a reader with a firm understanding of the context (past and present) in which the fundamental questions they seek to address sit. When it comes to interdisciplinary work, these problems are particularly acute; not only do you have multiple bodies of literature to quickly and succinctly review, but you must also do so in a way accessible to the members of the each field. Some (but, by no means, all) physicists are certainly guilty of this when it comes to writing about social networks, as they are prone to reinventing the wheel. The most egregious example of which is the preferential attachment model of Barabasi and Albert, but it can (and should) be argued that this reinvention was extremely valuable, as it helped spark a wide degree of interest in the previous work and has prompted some excellent work on developing that idea since. So, the fundamental question that I think all of we who claim to be interdisciplinary must face and ultimately answer (in a way that can be communicated to future generations of interdisciplinary researchers, many of whom are in college right now) is, What is the most principled and reasonable way, given the constraints on attention, energy, time, knowledge, intelligence, etc., to allocate proper recognition (typically via citations and coauthorships) to previous and on-going work that is relevant to some interdisciplinary effort?

Or, more succinctly, what's the most practical way to mitigate the inter-disciplinary politics of interdisciplinary research while encouraging it to the fullest extent possible? Closely related are questions about adequately evaluating the merit of research that does not fall squarely within the domain of a large enough body of experts for peer-review. As is the question of how academic departments should value interdisciplinary researchers and what role they should fill in the highly compartmentalized and territorial realm of academic disciplines.

Manual TrackBack: Three-toed Sloth

posted May 21, 2005 04:09 PM in Simply Academic | permalink


Very well reasoned post. It is not too much to expect someone doing interdisciplinary work to cite relevant papers from outside one's own home base. Also, I think part of the reason for publishing in a home base journal (vice one that is already interdisciplinary or one that is in the "foreign territory") is the unconcsiuous knowledge that one will be exposed to tougher peer review and compelled to do a better lit review.

Posted by: TCO at July 6, 2005 03:17 AM