To delve even deeper into brain science, two professors at the University of Oxford are taking on still another challenge – one that a growing number of researchers are encountering:
Today’s problems often require the expertise of researchers in multiple fields, but the world of research is set up to be disciplinary.
“There’s a lot of inertia around that and it’s hard to break away from it,” said Prof. Antoine Jérusalem of the university’s Department of Engineering Science. “But some questions are so complicated and unknown, you need input from multiple perspectives.”
It’s one thing to say that a multidisciplinary approach is needed; putting it into practice is a different matter altogether. It means challenging existing structures, taking risks, and building a community that’s united not by the discipline they operate in but the problem they’re looking to address.
The problem Antoine is tackling is the human brain. Alongside Dr. Alain Goriely, Professor of Mathematical Modelling, Antoine worked with Elsevier to set up the open access interdisciplinary journal Brain Multiphysics. Their idea was to build a more complete understanding by bringing together research on various aspects of the brain from multiple disciplines – for example, trauma, development and neurodegenerative disease.
To illustrate the point, Alain used the example of brain trauma: “Let’s say the brain experiences physical shock,” he said. “You have to understand the forces involved, the effect they have on the tissue, which is a problem a mathematical or an engineering perspective can help with.”
Understanding the effects that mechanical disturbance has on cellular microstructures requires expertise in biochemistry, or cellular biology. From there, mathematical modelling might play a role, with a researcher in that discipline building a computer model to understand the swelling that would be caused by a given impact, potentially scaling it back up to the organ scale for clinical interpretation. Alain continued: “What we’re trying to do is understand all these aspects and combine the insights from all parties into a coherent picture. Trauma is just one example; there are many of these questions around the brain that can’t be fully addressed without a multidisciplinary approach.”
Creating an open access journal
When Alain and Antoine approached Elsevier with an idea for a journal covering the brain from the perspective of a broad range of disciplines, they knew it would have to be open access, ensuring that researchers from every community could read and contribute regardless of the subscriptions their libraries have. Additionally, they wanted the article processing charge to reflect the affordable end of the market, ensuring that researchers from every discipline could read and publish in the journal. Alain explained:
We knew we wanted this journal to be as accessible as possible, and Elsevier was very accommodating on that. For this journal to make a meaningful difference, we need to reach as large as possible a community in terms of readership and authorship, and open access enables that.
At the same time, the journal benefits from the professionalism of a major publisher and the credibility that that brings. Elsevier gives us the flexibility to reach a wider range of disciplines. Plus, in a difficult landscape, with so many fake journals, it’s important to have the backing of one of the most recognized names.
Antoine agreed: “If you welcome papers from many disciplines, you want to be sure that all disciplines are able to read it. If it’s not open access, it gets read selectively by different disciplines. If it’s not open access, it restricts the readership to specific groups. For something that was so centered around being multidisciplinary, it was the only option that made sense.”
Forming a multidisciplinary network – and the challenges it brings
Alain and Antoine realized the importance of taking a multidisciplinary approach when they started to examine the brain from a more physical, mechanical perspective. As Alain explained:
We didn’t want to do that in isolation, but what became really important was identifying the right questions that could only be answered by direct interaction with people working in anatomy, energy, neurosurgery, neuroscience and so on. We formed a small network to bring together people across the whole spectrum of research.
That network grew into something bigger – first through a series of workshops and then through research collaborations. “We realized that community needed a voice of its own, as these teams didn’t have a place for their findings in regular publication landscape, where a large part of the proposed work would always be out of scope for a single discipline journal,” Alain said. “We’re building a community that’s not based around one discipline but around people who are interested in the same problems.”
That said, balancing the benefits of multidisciplinary research with the realities of the way research institutions are structured can be difficult. Asked whether researchers should take that direction, Alain is ambivalent:
At an intellectual level, it’s clear that there are more and more problems that require a multidisciplinary approach. At the same time, as far as funding, career advancement, promotion and hiring go, we work in a world that is very much disciplinary. So it’s not a piece of advice I’d give lightly, but if you feel that stepping out of your main discipline is going to enrich your work, you should pursue that. It may make things a little harder, but at the end of the day there are rewards for doing it.
As an engineer, Antoine’s perspective is slightly different:
With engineering, you are necessarily bound to the concept of linking ideas to a potential application rather than a discipline. So although there’s still that culture of becoming a specialist, it also leans more naturally towards multidisciplinary work. And if you look at the funding landscape in engineering, there’s a push to bring in other disciplines, and some projects will only be funded if you bring in different perspectives.
One challenge when creating a community that encompasses a wide range of disciplines, is ensuring its curators are equipped to assess quality in areas in which they may not be expert. Antoine pointed out that assembling a diverse editorial board was essential:
There’s a danger, obviously, that you might sacrifice the quality and excellent work if we’re not able to assess papers effectively. So we brought in a wide range of experts from a variety of fields. In our case, I’m particularly proud of the quality of the board. Our board has experts in topics ranging from pediatric neurosurgery to forensics to traditional mechanics, physics, biophysics, etc. Having people like that on the board helps assess the quality of the papers and keeps the standards high.
An inevitable shift
As such, the research culture is shifting towards this multidisciplinary model, and the increasing number of journals that cover the gaps between traditional disciplines are helping to drive that change. Multidisciplinary journals provide a venue for research that may be rejected due to being out of scope for other journals while also forming a community dedicated to a set of specific challenges. As Alain explained:
What this approach really does is build a community of people interested in the brain. And it brings the right level of expertise: when someone sends a paper that’s in scope to a multidisciplinary journal, it will be reviewed by people who understand the ideas behind the approach and the overall philosophy – and (it will be) read by the same community.
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