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November 06, 2005

Finding your audience

Some time ago, a discussion erupted on Crooked Timber about the ettiquete of interdisciplinary research. This conversation was originally sparked by Eszter Hargittai, a sociologist with a distinct interest in social network analysis, who complained about some physicists working on social networks and failing to appropriately cite previous work in the area. I won't rehash the details, since you can read them for yourself. However, the point of the discussion that is salient for this post is the question of where and how one should publish and promote interdisciplinary work.

Over the better half of this past year, I have had my own journey with doing interdisciplinary research in political science. Long-time readers will know that I'm referring to my work with here, here and here). In our paper (old version via arxiv), we use tools from extremal statistics and physics to think carefully about the nature and evolution of terrorism, and, I think, uncover some interesting properties and trends at the global level. Throughout the process of getting our results published in an appropriate technical venue, I have espoused the belief that it should either go to an interdisciplinary journal or one that political scientists will read. That is, I felt that it should go to a journal with an audience that would both appreciate the results and understand their implications.

This idea of appropriateness and audience, I think, is a central problem for interdisciplinary researchers. In an ideal world, every piece of novel research would be communicated to exactly that group of people who would get the most out of learning about the new result and who would be able to utilize the advance to further deepen our knowledge of the natural world. Academic journals and conferences are a poor approximation of this ideal, but currently they're the best institutional mechanism we have. To correct for the non-idealness of these institutions, academics have always distributed preprints of their work to their colleagues (who often pass them to their own friends, etc.). Blogs, e-print archives and the world wide web in general constitute interesting new developments in this practice and show how the fundamental need to communicate ideas will co-opt whatever technology is available. Returning to the point, however, what is interesting about interdisciplinary research is that by definition it has multiple target audiences to which it could, or should, be communicated. Choosing that audience can become a question of choosing what aspects of the work you think are most important to science in general, i.e., what audience has the most potential to further develop your ideas? For physicists working on networks, some of their work can and should be sent to sociology journals, as its main contribution is in the form of understanding social structure and implication, and sociologists are best able to use these discoveries to explain other complex social phenomena and to incorporate them into their existing theoretical frameworks.

In our work on the statistics of terrorism, Maxwell and I have chosen a compromise strategy to address this question: while we selected general science or interdisciplinary journals to send our first manuscript on the topic, we have simultaneously been making contacts and promoting our ideas in political science so as to try to understand how to further develop these ideas within their framework (and perhaps how to encourage the establishment to engage in these ideas directly). This process has been educational in a number of ways, and recently has begun to bear fruit. For instance, at the end of October, Maxwell and I attended the International Security Annual Conference (in Denver this year) where we presented our work in the second of two panels on terrorism. Although it may have been because we announced ourselves as computer scientists, stood up to speak, used slides and showed lots of colorful figures, the audience (mostly political scientists, with apparently some government folk present as well) was extremely receptive to our presentation (despite the expected questions about statistics, the use of randomness and various other technical points that were unfamiliar to them). This led to several interesting contacts and conversations after the session, and an invitation to the both of us to attend a workshop in Washington DC on predictive analysis for terrorism that will be attended by people from the entire alphabet soup of spook agencies. Also, thanks to the mention of our work in The Economist over the summer, we have similarly been contacted be a handful of political scientists who are doing rigorous quantitative work in a similar vein as ours. We're cautiously optimistic that this may all lead to some fruitful collaborations, and ultimately to communicating our ideas to the people to whom they will matter the most.

Despite the current popularity of the idea of interdisciplinary research (not to be confused with excitement about the topic itself, which would take the form of funding), if you are interested in pursuing a career in it, like many aspects of an academic career, there is little education about its pitfalls. The question of etiquette in academic research deserves much more attention in graduate school than it currently receives, as does its subtopic of interdisciplinary etiquette. Essentially, it is this last idea that lays at the heart of Eszter Hargittai's original complaint about physicists working on social networks: because science is a fundamentally social exercise, there are social consequences for not observing the accepted etiquette, and those consequences can be a little unpredictable when the etiquette is still being hammered out as in the case of interdisciplinary research. For our work on terrorism, our compromise strategy has worked so far, but I fully expect that, as we continue to work in the area, we will need to more fully adopt the mode and convention of our target audience in order to communicate effectively with them.

posted November 6, 2005 01:15 PM in Simply Academic | permalink


BTW, you may be interested in the American Society for Cybernetics, URL: http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/

Links to some great food-for-thought sites and people, including lots on sociology & computer networking being combined to increase intelligence or information. (Cybernetics: 'the science of understanding'). The more the merrier. Ciao!

Posted by: still bored at December 13, 2005 03:47 PM