Knowledge Mobilization and Interdisciplinarity: A rant

If you are a graduate student or a faculty member in the fields of Social Sciences or Humanities in a Canadian university, you must have noticed the term Knowledge Mobilization. Knowledge Mobilization is “(t)he reciprocal and complementary flow and uptake of research knowledge between researchers, knowledge brokers and knowledge users — both within and beyond academia — in such a way that may benefit users and create positive impacts within Canada and/or internationally, and, ultimately, has the potential to enhance the profile, reach and impact of social sciences and humanities research.” Also referred to as KMb, the concept is pretty much everywhere. It only takes a quick look at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada, the largest funding agency of the country on these disciplines, to attest it.

KMb and interdisciplinarity

In Social Sciences and Humanities, the concept of interdisciplinarity has gained prominence rapidly over the last 10 years almost in parallel with the increasing popularity of KMb itself in this context. Interdisciplinarity is a key element of Knowledge Mobilization as, according to Ben Levin, “(k)nowledge mobilization is a highly interdisciplinary activity (…). It ranges across multiple disciplines and applied fields. Understandably, the favour of the largest funding agency in Social Sciences and Humanities in Canada has given to the concept of interdisciplinarity a value (as in financial value) that did not have before. Also understandably, universities and research centres, as well as researchers and academics in general, are keen to adopt the term. Phrases like “demonstrated ability to work in an interdisciplinary environment will be preferred” are common in academic jobs applications, implicitly pushing emerging scholars to claim an interdisciplinary interest that they might really not have.

Whether intentionally or not, the discourse about interdisciplinarity that universities and funding agencies have adopted is deeply misleading.

Whether intentionally or not, the discourse about interdisciplinarity that universities and funding agencies have adopted is deeply misleading. The veiled urge that academic institutions place in their graduate students to embrace interdisciplinarity and “collaborative scholarship” through KMb is missing a fundamental piece: the acknowledgment of the downside of interdisciplinary research in the current system of academic rewards.

The downside

Of course, the circumstances of interdisciplinary research vary between disciplines (ironically), countries and even institutions. However, generally speaking, interdisciplinary research is perceived as risky for reasons that quite often have to do with the importance that the academic system place on citations. As it is right now, it is fair to say that the path to move up in the academic tenure system in Canada is very conventional. Once one get a job in the professoriate stream, it takes 5 to 6 years to advance to the next stage. During this time, the candidate is supposed to contribute to the institution in terms of service, teaching and research. In regards of research specifically, the candidate is expected to demonstrate “excellence”, evidenced by significant contributions within a given field of study. How do you measure excellence? For instance, according to Part 4: Conditions of Appointment for Faculty of UBC’s collective agreement: “For the scholarship of teaching, scholarly activity may be evidenced by originality or innovation, demonstrable impact in a particular field or discipline, peer reviews, dissemination in the public domain, or substantial and sustained use by others.” While the resources to assess originality or innovation could be very subjective, “demonstrable impact” translates into number of citations and ranking of the journals (which also depends on citations).

Demonstrable impact translates into number of citations and ranking of the journals (which also depends on citations).

According to Richard Van NoordenOver three years, papers with diverse references tend to pick up fewer citations than the norm, but over 13 years they gain more.” This does not affect all disciplines the same way, the Social Sciences and Humanities are in a particularly difficult position as interdisciplinary research is not common despite the extensive use of the term within these disciplinary fields. Moreover, research shows that 8.2 papers of every 10 published in Humanities are never cited (it is 3.2/10 in Social Sciences). In fact, even in disciplines with a relatively good citation rate, there are accounts of more than 4.5 years of waiting time between submission and publication. For scholars like Van Noorden it is clear that “interdisciplinary work can have broad societal and economic impacts that are not captured by citations.” and there is clear evidence that journal rankings can actively suppress interdisciplinary research. But even if there was no empirical data, it is a matter of common sense. Just think about it, considering the importance that citations have for journals: why a journal would want to publish (at all, let alone quickly) research that takes so long to have an impact in a discipline with an already low rate of citations? And moreover, why a university would want to hire a scholar that takes too long to have a “demonstrable impact” in a particular field or discipline?

Just think about it: why would a journal want to publish research that takes so long to have an impact in a discipline with an already low rate of citations?
The interdisciplinarity of Social Sciences, Humanities and Health, compared. The chart uses the index of citations and references to disciplinary fields outside the original per year in different subfields. Less external references and citations appear in the left bottom quadrant. More, in the top right quadrant.

Walk the walk

Do not get me wrong, I am a true believer of interdisciplinarity and the idea of Knowledge Mobilization, I just do not think many academic institutions are really serious about it. These terms, along with others such as “collaborative” and “public” are often used to reward mono-disciplinary academics. Scholars that have gained momentum within a system that favours them and now pay lip service to the concept by writing these new buzzwords in grant applications. This is academic double-dipping. It is the product of a system that asks people to do things differently while keeping the same assessment template. The real chances of truly interdisciplinary scholars to compete in these conditions are non-existent. I am of course not suggesting that the entire system should change because it works perfectly for many academics as it is. But unless we find an alternative system that privileges interdisciplinarity (as a process) over citations (as a product) we will only not achieve interdisciplinarity, we will deter every emerging interdisciplinary scholar from pursuing this path by forcing them to adopt traditional practices in search for academic recognition. I do not know how this alternative system would look like. But I know how it would not… and it is not what we have right now. At the end, the point of this rant is quite simple really: If we are to talk the talk… we also have to walk the walk.

The point of my rant is quite simple really: If we want to talk the talk… we also have to walk the walk.

This text was presented during the Language and Literacy Education Graduate Students Conference Re-animating & Re-searching:
Mobilizing Knowledge in Education
at the University of British Columbia the 21 of April of 2017.