Research Findings

Why are multidisciplinary scientists penalized in contests that are critical for their careers?

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November 10, 2022

Multidisciplinary science promises more innovation as it addresses larger problems that may go beyond the confines of narrow disciplines. But what consequences have multidisciplinarity for scientists who seek to advance their career in a discipline-dominated system of public science? 

Our research, published in Organization Science, shows that multidisciplinary academics are at a disadvantage when they are evaluated by their peers and enter contests, such as attaining institutional positions, that are critical to their career. What’s even more striking is that the better their scientific track record, the more penalized they are.

Particularly the latter result is surprising when considering previous research on the topic. Received sociological wisdom on the categorical imperative would suggest that individuals who do not fit neatly with a category, like a discipline, are discriminated against because evaluators find them confusing and suspect them of being less skilled and reliable. Applied to our context, multidisciplinary scientists would be hard to judge by their peers and be seen as less accomplished. This would mean that evidence of past academic performance should go a long way toward assuaging evaluators’ concerns. 

We observe something altogether different. We find that there is indeed discrimination, but our results point to a rather different reason: multidisciplinary scientists are at a disadvantage because they are perceived as potential threats to the status quo in their own fields by peers. This why high performers are penalized more: evaluators may think that because they are more talented and more inspiring, they pose a greater threat to the coherence of a discipline, compared to their middling colleagues. 

This argument can be expanded to other contexts where new candidates are also admitted to a closed entity, like professions or even organizations. In all of these situations, evaluators engage in a form of “gatekeeping.” By discriminating against candidates that do not match the “prototype” person expected in the entity, they try and maintain the boundaries and identities of the entity, such as the discipline, they represent.

Our study focuses on the nationwide habilitation in Italian academia, used to accredit candidates as appointable as professors at any Italian public university. Our team of researchers at the University of Bologna, Imperial College London and HEC Paris examined comprehensive data on 55,497 resumes submitted to 174 discipline-specific panels. We found that high-performing multidisciplinary scientists–those with strong publication and citation records–faced a higher bar to being accepted by colleagues.

The effect was sizable: the average penalty applied to high-performing multidisciplinary candidates was approximately two-thirds higher than the penalty applied to low-performing multidisciplinary candidates. The observed effect was particularly evident in disciplines that were small and highly cohesive (those heavily reliant on discipline-specific journals). We also observed that panels whose members were highly typical of their discipline publication-wise were harsher when it came to evaluating talented multidisciplinary candidates.

These results may appear counterintuitive: why would evaluators penalize performance? Yet they are understandable when considering that, in academia, a small number of highly talented and productive players tend to have a disproportionate influence on the future of disciplines when it comes, for instance, to choosing priority areas or exploring pathways for renewal. High performers may also be awarded more prestigious positions, command higher salaries, and mobilize more resources to challenge the status quo. Multidisciplinary scientists with a middling track record are relatively innocuous, presenting potential opportunities for enriching the discipline and bringing in new ideas and methods. But more brilliant multidisciplinary scientists may appear more menacing. Accreditors, we find, tend to be reluctant to let them in.

Of course, this phenomenon may come at the expense of innovation and the influx of fresh talent and ideas within academic entities. In any academic evaluation process, there is a fundamental trade-off between conservatism and renewal. The elite members of the discipline who are typically involved in accreditation processes may legitimately be concerned with maintaining the stability of their field. But when accreditors are invested in a gatekeeping role, closely guarding the knowledge domain and identity of their discipline, talented yet ill-fitted candidates are left out.

The architects of accreditation processes may consider remedial measures, including explicit “positive discrimination” guidelines and the inclusion of accreditors who are not directly invested in the status quo to alleviate the defensiveness inherent in the process.

For academics, our study adds to an already long literature that advocates a cautious approach to multidisciplinarity. While researchers may feel freer to venture outside their home discipline once they have established a solid track record, our work suggests that the social cost of passing disciplinary borders may then be especially high. A more nuanced appreciation of this cost, and the conditions under which it arises, may help university decision-makers seeking to design more attractive multi-disciplinary initiatives.

Gatekeeping behavior may however not be restricted to academia. It may concern any process that give access to a closed social entity and involve evaluators invested in boundary maintenance. Talented candidates that do not fit expected functional profiles, for instance, may be left at the door by organizational recruiters preoccupied with maintaining the jurisdiction and identity of their department or team.

Read more

Riccardo Fini, Julien Jourdan, Markus Perkmann and Laura Toschi. “A new take on the categorical imperative: Gatekeeping, boundary maintenance, and evaluation penalties in science” in Organization Science 2022.

image: Chokniti Khongchum via pexels

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