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Respecting unity and diversity: Towards effective multidisciplinary research

  • Academia is a highly competitive career environment, yet researchers must collaborate.
  • To address highly complex challenges, research collaboration must transcend disciplines.
  • Psychologist Professor Susan Simkins at Pennsylvania State University, USA, studied how researchers balance unity and diversity of knowledge in teams composed of members from different disciplines.
  • She identified what knowledge should be shared and what knowledge should remain unique to individual members for multidisciplinary teams to be effective.
  • The research also highlights the factors that facilitate and hinder multidisciplinary team collaboration.

To those in the corporate sector, academia may not seem a particularly competitive environment. The truth is that in academia, highly prized resources such as funding are coveted, and hierarchies exist, determined mainly by academic output with the eye on cementing scholarly authority and academia’s version of job security: tenure.

However, at the same time, academia’s strength lies in collaboration. This is especially true when we look to academics for guidance in addressing the world’s most complex societal, environmental, and public health challenges, such as poverty, climate change, and obesity. Such insight is impossible without multidisciplinary collaboration that requires significant knowledge sharing by researchers. Collaborations can last years, demanding significant time and input.

Understanding multidisciplinary team collaboration and what makes it effective is therefore critical. It is something that interests Dr Susan Simkins, a professor of industrial-organisational psychology (the scientific study of people at work) at Pennsylvania State University in the United States. Simkins is funded by the National Science Foundation and works with researchers at other universities nationwide and internationally; it seems second nature. And yet, there’s a science to what makes such collaborations work.

Transcending boundaries of individual disciplines

As opposed to collaboration between researchers from the same discipline, multidisciplinary teams face difficulties due to the diversity in priorities, methodologies, terminology, and educational and functional backgrounds. These differences can lead to communication and coordination challenges. Ultimately, the success of multidisciplinary collaboration lies in the degree of knowledge convergence – the level of integration of distinct sets of knowledge, expertise, and perspectives. Ideally, such integration should lead to a unified understanding or a new body of knowledge that transcends the boundaries of individual disciplines.

Simkins noted that researchers embraced the opportunity to work with fellow researchers, often from extremely diverse disciplines to their own.

Importantly, by integrating knowledge from various fields, research teams can develop more effective solutions, innovative methodologies, and holistic understandings of the challenges they are studying. This is why organisational psychologists like Simkins, whose work focuses on teams and leadership, are drawn to multidisciplinary research.

Working with graduate students and undergraduates at Penn State, Simkins conducted interviews and surveys with principal and co-principal investigators from NSF grant-funded teams representing diverse disciplines. The studies included recipients of EAGER Grants – short for EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research – an NSF funding mechanism designed to support exploratory, high-risk, and potentially transformative research ideas, requiring multidisciplinary collaboration.

Successful collaborations rely on a mutual respect between the researchers.

Simkins and her team wanted to explore what knowledge should be shared versus uniquely held and how this affects collaboration satisfaction and productivity outcomes, which they assessed by an archival analysis of the number of conference presentations, publications, and grants.

They also measured the quality of journals and conferences where the work was published using metrics like impact factors and h-indices.

When unity and diversity coexist 

They discovered that interviewees generally favoured knowledge convergence for ‘bigger picture’ aspects such as vision and teamwork but less so for more detailed aspects such as research outcomes and content. The study showed that researchers shared values like multidisciplinary respect and openness but differed around the operational details of methodologies. Less convergence was also reported for where to publish and research content. In this way, unity and diversity coexist in the multidisciplinary teams’ knowledge architecture.Higher overall actual knowledge convergence was associated with higher perceived collaboration satisfaction.

The studies showed that researchers shared values like multidisciplinary respect and openness but differed around the operational details of methodologies.

Of course, teamwork isn’t only about everyone agreeing; diversity of input is a hallmark of successful multidisciplinary collaboration, but unless there’s sufficient alignment, the result is the academic equivalent of herding cats. According to Simkins, the practical implications of their study are that multidisciplinary researchers should prioritise consensus on two basic categories of questions: what is to be accomplished, and who will do what and when to get that done.

Regular communication and good interpersonal relationships among team members are crucial for an effective collaboration.

The studies also highlighted three broad components that contribute to the success of team collaboration across different disciplines: the attitudes and experiences of those involved in the research, the interpersonal relationships between them, and situational factors, such as resources and physical proximity. Despite the challenges associated with multidisciplinary research, the studies showed that researchers embraced the opportunity to work with fellow researchers, often from extremely diverse disciplines to their own.

Respect and interpersonal relationships

While integrating across disciplines in research teams can be challenging due to differences in language, methods, and goals, it can also bring about richer and higher-quality research outcomes. Simkins and her team showed that success in such collaborations relies on members being genuinely interested in the research question, respectful of different disciplines, and willing to communicate effectively and regularly. Their studies also suggest that prior collaboration and good interpersonal relationships among team members are crucial in ensuring effective multidisciplinary research.

Academic research is the foundation for much of our knowledge, and researchers carry significant responsibility for shaping how we make sense of the world around us.

What the research has taught us encourages a closer examination of multidisciplinary collaboration. Academic research is the foundation for much of our knowledge, and researchers carry significant responsibility for shaping how we make sense of the world around us. However, solving the world’s most vexing grand challenges will not be accomplished by one person, discipline, or even nation. Researchers must suspend competition, share knowledge, and collaborate to build a fuller picture. When that picture is of highly complex, critical challenges with global impacts, that collaboration needs to be multidisciplinary, and it needs to work – there’s too much at stake for it not to.

What surprised you in the outcome of these studies?

Despite the significant challenges associated with multidisciplinary research, almost 9 out of 10 investigators in our sample chose to work with a collaborator from a different discipline, and almost 8 out of 10 chose to work with a researcher from an extremely different discipline from their own (eg, computer science and psychology) after receiving grant funding. This is significant because while granting agencies often require cross-disciplinary team composition to be competitive for funding, awards are not contracts and investigators may disengage with those outside of their field without losing money awarded to fund their work. However, our results revealed that National Science Foundation grants are having their intended effect of being a catalyst for continued cross-disciplinary collaboration and high-quality cross-disciplinary publication and conference output.

What is the biggest sticking point in effective multidisciplinary research, and why?

Knowledge integration is extremely challenging when members from diverse disciplines have different research goals, methodological traditions, and specialised terminology. Communication and coordination breakdowns are common. Yet, unless multidisciplinary teams explore the intersections between disciplines, the potential benefits of the diverse expertise represented will not be realised.

Your research focuses on teams; at what point could an assimilation of cross-disciplinary researchers be considered an effective ‘team’?

A group of experts does not make an expert team. That is, a loose collection of brilliant scholars who are renowned for their knowledge in their individual disciplines does not equal an effective multidisciplinary team. The cross-disciplinary benefits accrue, not merely from team members representing diverse expertise (composition), but from members integrating knowledge across fields to build shared understanding (collaboration). This integration takes time and effort.

What makes an effective leader in such a team?

Having a leader with a multidisciplinary background who can clarify misunderstandings and ease communication tensions between members of different disciplines can be extremely helpful. Because multidisciplinary team members often have different levels of ownership in the larger project, an effective leader builds and maintains a shared vision to unite all members. By reminding the team of what can be accomplished by integrating across disciplines, the leader can motivate members to invest the time and energy needed to navigate the coordination and integration challenges of multidisciplinary teamwork.

What are the key takeaway points in your studies that multidisciplinary research teams currently collaborating should consider?

Multidisciplinary researchers should prioritise arriving at a consensus on two basic categories of questions: 1) What will we accomplish and produce? and 2) Who will do what and when will the work be accomplished? Mentioned by almost half of interviewees, the most popular facilitator to continued cross-disciplinary collaboration was the interpersonal relationship, including liking for collaborators, having a shared end goal, and meeting regularly. Therefore, multidisciplinary researchers should give specific attention to ensuring shared goals by communicating frequently.

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Further reading

Mohammed, S, Hamilton, K, Marhefka, J, Tirrell, B, Davis, C, Hong, H, (2023) To share or not to share? Knowledge convergence and divergence in cross-disciplinary collaboration, Journal of Organizational Psychology, 23(3).

Mohammed, S, Tirrell, B, Davis, C, Zhang, T, Basore, C, Liao, X, Miller, G, (2023) To stay or not to stay: Multidisciplinary collaboration after NSF funding, Journal of Clinical and Translational Science, 7(s1), 132–133.

Dr Susan Simkins

Dr Susan Simkins (Mohammed) is a professor of industrial-organisational psychology at Penn State University, where her research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Office for Naval Research. She focuses on teams and leadership, including team cognition, team composition/diversity, temporal dynamics, and human-robot teaming.

Contact Details



  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) under Award No 1939163
  • The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, National Institutes of Health (NIH), through Grants UL1 TR002014


  • Chelsea Basore
  • Katherine Hamilton
  • Jaqueline Marhefka
  • Bruce Tirrell
  • Carri Davis
  • Howard Hong
  • Tianyi Zhang
  • Xueyi Liao
  • Grace Miller
  • Jason Williamson

Competing interest statement

The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NSF or the NIH.

Cite this Article

Simkins, S, (2024) Respecting unity and diversity: Towards effective multidisciplinary research, Research Features, 151.

Creative Commons Licence

(CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License

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