Investigating interdisciplinary research discourse: the case of Global Environmental Change

In cooperation with the international scientific publisher, Elsevier, we are going to investigate the discourse of interdisciplinary research (IDR) through comprehensive and innovative linguistic analyses of the full holdings of a successful IDR journal, Global Environmental Change.

IDRD logo

This analysis will be complemented by linguistic analyses of samplings of five other IDR journals and five discipline-specific journals, and by surveys of, and interviews with editors, reviewers and researchers.

Elsevier logoDescription of the project

It is generally accepted now that many real-world problems are best addressed by a number of disciplines working together rather than by individual disciplines alone. In the UK, research councils promote interdisciplinary research activity, and universities in turn encourage academics to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines. It is not always easy, however, for researchers in different areas to cooperate, because each discipline has methods of working, expectations, value systems and ways of talking and writing that are special to that discipline and not easily shared. We believe that it is important for institutions, research councils and researchers to have a fuller understanding of what the distinctive features of discourse practices in interdisciplinary research are and of how they differ from discourse practices in conventional disciplines.

As a step toward this goal we are going to investigate the discourse of a successful journal in an interdisciplinary field: Environmental Change. We will study the extent to which this field operates as a unified whole, the extent to which journal authors in the field broaden their messages to a multidisciplinary audience, and the extent to which each discipline in the field maintains a discrete identity.

In order to investigate the field we will analyse the journal Global Environmental Change. We will include in our study every article published in the journal since its inception in 1990. The primary methodology we use is Corpus Linguistics, that is, using specialised software to analyse large quantities of written text. Many studies of individual disciplines, using corpus techniques, already exist, but these techniques have not yet been applied to an interdisciplinary field.

We will use an approach to the description of the linguistic features of texts that will make it possible for us to cluster texts according to degrees of correlation in their linguistic profiles; this approach, developed by Douglas Biber, is called 'multidimensional analysis'. In addition, we will investigate the recurrent phraseologies of texts in this field and then cluster texts with similar phraseological profiles. Using both multidimensional and phraseological clusters, we will see whether the texts cluster following discipline boundaries. This is an innovative approach to corpus-based investigations of research discourse: instead of placing the texts into categories according to external criteria (for example, according to 'discipline'), we will group texts by text-internal features.

We will also look at the citation practices (do authors tend to cite within their discipline?) and how writers and readers are represented in the texts (do writers address their readers as experts in their discipline, for example?).

We will compare the results of our investigation of the discourse of interdisciplinary research in that journal by comparing it to samples of texts taken from other journals, five representing other interdisciplinary fields and five representing specific disciplines. This will allow us to determine whether interdisciplinary research discourse is distinct in its features, and also to to see how much variation in discourse practices there may be between interdisciplinary fields and within disciplines. We will look at this across time, to see whether discourse practices change as a field becomes more established and as an interdisciplinary community develops.

To complement our analyses of texts, we will also conduct surveys and interviews of people involved in the journal publication process: editors, reviewers and authors. The data can help us to explain some of the phenomena that we observe in the texts; the influence of editorial policies, for example, or the ways that authors from different disciplines collaborate to write texts.

Research questions

The research questions, arranged in sets, are as follows:

RQ1 When the articles in the Global Environmental Change journal are ‘clustered’ according to linguistic features, do the clusters that are identified represent communities of practice, disciplinary or otherwise? Do the clusters remain the same over time? Do the general linguistic profiles of GEC articles (established through multidimensional [MD] analysis) resemble those of other IDR journals? Are they distinct from those of specialist disciplinary journals?

RQ2 What is the phraseological profile of the GEC articles? Does this profile distinguish clusters of articles; and are these clusters the same as those identified by the MD analysis clustering technique? Do phraseological profiles change over time?

RQ3 To what extent do GEC articles cite sources from across cluster divides? What are the functions of citations? What and how much do authors cite? How have these practices changed over time?

RQ4 How are writers, researchers and readers represented in GEC articles, and how does this change over time? Do ‘interdisciplinary researcher’ identities emerge over time? Has the imagined readership changed? How does GEC compare to other IDR journals? How do the IDR journals compare to specialist disciplinary journals?

RQ5 What do journal editors, reviewers and authors perceive the distinctive features of an interdisciplinary journal to be, in comparison with a discipline-specific journal? What practices and what linguistic features do they identify as key to successful IDR communication in journals? How have practices changed over time?

User groups

We have identified four major user groups:

  1. UK Research Councils
  2. People involved in the publication of interdisciplinary research output, directly and indirectly.
  3. Those involved in conducting or managing IDR, within academia and in commercial research centres.
  4. Teachers of Study Skills and English for Academic Purposes (EAP)

We plan to engage with these user groups both during the period of the project and at the end, at seminars to be held at the University of Birmingham, to which representatives from each of the four user groups will be invited.

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