How to Make A Successful Interdisciplinary Research Project
In June 2022, Renaissance Goo and the Kings College London Centre for Early Modern Studies got together to host a workshop called Ways of Knowing the Early Modern: Experimental Methods and Interdisciplinary Collaboration.
Sarah Cockram, Hannah Murphy and Jill Burke brought together representatives from some exciting cross-disciplinary projects that focused on the early modern period. We asked participants to give us some insights into the practicalities and the craft of collaboration, to talk about how interdisciplinary research gets off the ground, how it works and what it can find, with an emphasis on the myriad possibilities – but also the peculiar challenges – of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Here are some of the main things we discussed:
- Find good people
- The importance of finding the right people who are committed to the idea of the project, who bring a diverse range of expertise, and who all get along well was mentioned by many participants.
- Ideally, projects are supported before they start by seed funding and institutional support that gives space for potential project members to meet up to discuss potential funding applications together right from the start.
- It can be a challenge to meet people outside your own disciplinary networks, but inside the academic world, connections were made via University research and innovation offices, or by Twitter, Early press coverage of projects can help connections with external collaborators.
- Establish what’s possible
For example, to understand the possibilities and limitations of digitisation of historic material, it’s important to speak to colleagues with the right expertise.
- What material already exists in digital format that can be used as a data source? How does that affect the questions that can be asked and the likely answers? How can history be told in diverse ways using digital methods?
- For example, the Refashioning the Renaissance project used video game software for the digital reconstruction of a doublet. This required a large range of skills across several disciplines.
- Setting up a project advisory board (as here, for Box Office Bears) can be very useful for learning from others’ experience and expertise.
- Share findings along the way
- Timetabled contact with project team members is essential when the project is underway in order to maintain momentum and to share findings and ideas.
- Shared space online is important so that everyone can access the data generated by project researchers.
- Regular online meetings are essential, but face-to-face meetings- with space for open discussion should also be factored in.
- For remaking, the process is as important as the end result – and sometimes *is* the end result. It’s important to meticulously document and share research processes and findings along the way using notebooks, photography and video.
- Focus on skill building
Skill building in many different forms was an essential part of all these projects, from learning lab protocols for humanities students and scholars (discussed on the Making and Knowing project blog), to every aspect of textual production and making from dye plants to lace decorations (Refashioning the Renaissance).
- For people who are used to being experts in their own field, it can be uncomfortable to admit a lack of knowledge, but it is important to be open to learning about new hands-on skills as well as investigating other disciplines and disciplinary norms.
- It’s important to avoid accidental ‘disciplinary gatekeeping’ by applying norms of one discipline to others – eg applying the norms of historical scholarship to the performing and creative arts.
- Create clear guidelines for external partners
Many of these projects benefit from collaborating with stakeholders outside of academia – eg Odeuropa with International Flavours and Fragrances, and Refashioning the Renaissance in their citizen science knitted stocking project. It’s important when devising these partnerships to think about what those outside of academia gain from working on the project, and how to reward them for their time. It’s important to be clear about what is expected from these relationships from the start.
- Consider how best to disseminate findings
There are clusters of issues around how to publish or otherwise disseminate the data that comes from largescale projects.
- Books or articles are the traditional way to do this, and all the projects resulted/are resulting in this type of publication. It can be difficult to know where to publish some types of interdisciplinary work, however, as many journals are closely tied to subject areas and operate under their own disciplinary norms. Finding peer reviewers with the requisite knowledge can also be challenging.
- Many outputs in these projects are the result of the research of multiple participants. It’s important to have agreed protocols for acknowledging authorship of articles etc from the beginning.
- If a project has embodied or sensory knowledge at its core, this can be impossible to communicate via print. The Making and Knowing project digital edition uses essays, videos and multiple images to communicate the recipes in its core text. Odeuropa is collaborating with American Historical Review to think about new approaches towards communicating history.
- Consider who the material outputs of the project belong to, how they will be disseminated and where they will be kept after the end of the project. Collaboration with instutions to create in-person exhibitions were one way of doing this, as in the exhibitions held by the Refashioning the Renaissance project.
- Support early career researchers
Early career researchers are typically central to the success of largescale projects, and ensure that the knowledge and skills created in the project are sustained. It is important to consider how the project can support them into permanent jobs.
- Are ECRs outputs/publications. and the skills gained on the project going to help them on the job market which may be geared towards more traditional disciplinary scholarship.
- How can the organisation of the project avoid several ECRs with similar skills competing with each other on the job market at the same time.
Speakers (alongside Jill Burke and Wilson Poon from Renaissance Goo):
William Tullett from Odeuropa: This EU Horizon 2020 project is a collaboration across computer science, heritage science and the humanities focusing on the question of smell.
Sophie Pitman from Refashioning the Renaissance: A European Research Council consolidator project using reconstruction, amongst other methods, to explore fashion and clothing in Europe across broad social groups.
Tillman Taape and Tiana Uchacz from The Making and Knowing Project: A collaboration between laboratory science, palaeography, digital humanities, and history to explore relationships between today’s labs and the craft workshops of the past.
Andy Kesson and Hannah O’Regan from Box Office Bears (BOB): Animal baiting in early modern England: A collaboration between archaeologists, geneticists, literature and performance scholars investigating the pitting of animals against each other for human entertainment.
This fabulous day wouldn’t have happened without the practical work and help of Jonathan Powell from CEMS or Rebecca Taite from the Renaissance Skin project. Thanks to Renaissance Skin and Evelyn Welch for their support.