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Research Without Borders

Supporting and Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research

By Chris Banks | May 01, 2010

At the time of writing, Chris was University Librarian and Director of the Library & Historic Collections at the University of Aberdeen.


In recent decades, some borders defining traditional disciplinary research activities have been dissolving. Indeed, the borders between some disciplines have increasingly dissolved. As these boundaries blur or melt, research libraries have to respond to these changes.

Interdisciplinary research activity poses financial, organizational, liaison and training challenges for the contemporary research library. Interdisciplinary activity in research institutions can be harder to identify than traditional discipline-based research. It can be informal (e.g., loose collaborations between researchers within a single institution or in different institutions), or it can be short- or medium-term (e.g., work on funded research projects).

Where it is more formal and on a permanent basis (as with interdisciplinary research groups or institutes), interdisciplinary research presents new challenges for research libraries in the ways that resources are selected, funded, managed, made accessible and supported. Interdisciplinary support is a resource-intensive activity. And it normally also involves collaboration across geographical borders: How research support librarians tap into these interdisciplinary research networks and promote communications and collaborative work tools is also a challenge.

Academic libraries provide resources, training and tools

Research libraries start froma sound basis for supporting interdisciplinary research activity.

Long-standing expertise exists in purchasing appropriate subscription resources. “Big Deals” bring core content to researchers while increasing access to additional content. Provision of databases with broad subject coverage (such as Scopus or Web of Knowledge) can help researchers acquire overviews of subjects and, through the use of keywords, vocabularies and search features, identify interdisciplinary links. Provision of specialized databases (such as BIOSIS, CSA or Illumina) can facilitate “drilling down” into specialized areas.

Sophisticated discipline-specific search tools, provided by libraries, help researchers identify emerging terms and concepts as new fields crystallize their vocabularies. Such search tools encompass citation-searching and impact factors; limiters (date, document type, institutional affiliation, subject facet); ranking/relevance tools; and thesauri and structured vocabularies. All these discipline-specific search tools assist interdisciplinary researchers in carrying out effective searching and research.

Research support librarians enhance return on investment in these expensive resources by preparing guides and documentation and offering researchers either group or one-to-one training on:

  • Database scope, structure and coverage
  • Effective search strategies
  • Sophisticated search tools
  • Alerting and updating features

As the library creates an environment conducive to systematic, effective and time-saving literature searching, we also provide interdisciplinary researchers with links to fulltext or the discovery of paper formats; saved searches; current awareness features; and RSS feeds. Not to be forgotten is the institution’s own local online library catalog — an indispensable resource to identifying local print and electronic holdings.

New tools are helping researchers organize themselves

Organization of the researcher’s desktop is one of the Holy Grails of research support. Environments such as MetaLib have assisted in organizing subscription and free resources. Also, federated searching and resource discovery systems have the potential to become front-line tools in systematic literature searching, as they open up both an internal and external world of textual, data, graphic, published, unpublished, print and electronic sources.

Interdisciplinary research activity poses financial, organizational, liaison and training challenges for the contemporary research library.

Personal bibliographic management tools, including commercial ones such as RefWorks and EndNote and free ones such as Zotero, Mendeley and Connotea, facilitate the indexing, storing, sorting, managing and output of references in numerous bibliographic formats compatible with publishing requirements for thousands of journals. Collaborative resource or resourcesharing tools include subject and institutional repositories and SharePoint. Developments by universities to digitize research theses are also opening up freer access to key research information resources vastly underutilized in the traditional analog interlibrary loan environment.

Free tools also have a role to play in helping researchers, including interdisciplinary ones, organize and conduct their work. Some search engines facilitate discovery of research materials not necessarily published by traditional academic means. Google and Scirus help with grey and scientific literature, and Google Scholar can locate academic material not necessarily covered by (or contained in?) subscription databases. Dedicated wiki-like resources such as SciTopics are more authoritative sources than, for example, Wikipedia, and can provide useful overviews of unfamiliar topics. General portals such as Intute are useful entry points and can be followed up in more specialized portals dedicated to specific disciplines.

Collaboration facilitates interdisciplinary research

In terms of collaboration, myExperiment makes it easy to find, use and share scientific workflows and other research objects, and build communities, as do specialized social networks like Nature Network, 2Collab, Academic.edu and SciLink. At the broader level is LinkedIn. Although blogs and wikis are out there, these are still seeing limited take up. Finally, there’s space, that physical space (yes, the library!) that still complements the virtual space in which our researchers are working and that can facilitate and encourage collaboration.

Whichever predominates, the virtual or physical world, the role of the research library will continue to be to procure, organize and promote content and services to our users, in ways which utilize our expertise, streamline access and help our researchers maximize their time and effort, no matter how many disciplines they tackle at once.

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