IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Magazine - October 2019 - 11

The Importance of Interdisciplinary Work
Transdisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary
are terms that permeate discussions in many scientific
communities. These concepts are often interchangeable
and have, unfortunately, become buzzwords in various
sectors to indicate positive attributes. Many have heard
the praises of both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary
work. In 2015, the scientific journal Nature published an
entire special issue devoted solely to the importance of
interdisciplinary work [1]. The important question is: Why
is it so critical to generate this type of work?
This work comes to fruition through multiple perspec-
tives applied together to solve major societal problems.
These unique perspectives allow for multidimensional
problem solving that would otherwise be difficult if
approached via only one discipline. Even with these per-
ceived benefits, opportunities to engage in this type of
work are often missed. Simply, interdisciplinary and
transdisciplinary work is hard, a fact that this article
underscores. Bringing people together from differing
backgrounds requires give and take from each entity, and
people must proactively cooperate to produce this work.
Yet, moving forward, it will be fundamental to improve
science and produce more inclusive findings.
The SMC community should continue to implement both
interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work, while specif-
ically striving to produce more transdisciplinary
research. Yet, to do so, we also must understand
and define what transdisciplinary research real-
ly is, and we need to grasp how to implement
methods to effectively generate this type of
work. Thus, I aim to identify what transdis-
ciplinary work is and provide con-
crete recommendations
for how to approach this
type of research. The re-
commendations provid-
ed in this article are es-
sential for making our
community more trans-
disciplinary.
By definition, interdisciplinary means to in -
volve "two or more academic,
scientific, or artistic disciplines" [2]. There-
fore, SMC clearly fits into the parameters of this
definition. SMC, at its core, brings together many domains
of science and research to produce innovative work only
available at the intersections of different domains [3]. The
SMC community includes a wide variety of expertise:
computer scientists, electrical engineers, industrial engi-
neers, psychologists, sociologists, and professionals from
many other disciplines. This is fantastic news for the pur-
suit of transdisciplinarity. Essentially, it means that our
community already has the building blocks for creating
transdisciplinary work. But this type of work requires

more than these building blocks. There needs to be an
architecture, a game plan, and a script (whatever you may
call it) to organize those interdisciplinary blocks in a
meaningful transdisciplinary manner. My hope is that
some of the recommendations presented here will help in
that effort.
While SMC is inherently interdisciplinary, it is not
inherently transdisciplinary. Proactive work is required
to move from interdisciplinary to transdisciplinary.
Interestingly, when looking up transdisciplinary in
the dictionary, it refers back to interdisciplinary with-
out a true definition. So what really does transdisciplinary mean?
The varied makeup of SMC that results in our commu-
nity being interdisciplinary does not inherently result in
transdisciplinary work. The process of becoming transdis-
ciplinary is the natural evolution of activating interdisci-
plinary knowledge and methods. Interdisciplinary units
must work together with specific aims and goals to then
achieve transdisciplinary work. Transdisciplinary work is
the addition and multiplication of interdisciplinarity to
create and generate new innovative thoughts, products,
and, generically speaking, research.
The addition and multiplication are the hard part. If I
look back on my career, this is where I have needed guid-
ance, and much of that guidance was generated via
failure in attempting to attain widely transdis-
ciplinary work. My entire career has been
predicated and based on the principles
of both interdisciplinary and trans-
disciplinary work. My educational
trajectory began with a degree in
psychology. Then I obtained a
degree in the foundationally
interdisciplinary domain of
information science and
technology. I conducted
postdoctoral research in
human factors, and I
am currently a profes-
sor in computer sci-
ence (human-centered
computing). Down these
many paths, I have experienced
various successes and failures, which
have taught me many lessons about how to con-
duct transdisciplinary work. I am certainly not suggest-
ing that I have any of the answers. But I do have
recommendations based on what I have learned through-
out the process. These recommendations do not repre-
sent a perfect path toward conducting this type of work,
but I hope they provide insights that better enable read-
ers to advance from being in a single domain to perform-
ing interdisciplinary work. I further hope these thoughts
lead you to define and create transdisciplinary work
from your own perspectives.
O c tob e r 2019

IEEE SYSTEMS, MAN, & CYBERNETICS MAGAZINE

11



IEEE Systems, Man and Cybernetics Magazine - October 2019

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