Hotspot migration wipes out narrow specialization

Steffie Verstappen
December 27th, 2010
Article by: Steffie Verstappen
Hotspot migration wipes out narrow specialization

TAKE A STAND | Transdisciplinary collaboration is widely acknowledged as the driving force behind innovation, thereby adding indispensable value to academia as well as the world at large. Nonetheless, most of the current academic system is inherently geared towards the type of scientific protectionism that encourages narrow specialization. The open information society forces the hotspots of attention to migrate from the mainstream to the periphery. Due to their inherent resistance against adaptation, overly specialized disciplinary dinosaurs will eventually die out.


The importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, multidisciplinary teams, and transdisciplinary theory is usually acknowledged without much debate. Nonetheless, real consequences hardly follow. Established international journals and research funds pay lip service to interdisciplinary work. In practice, however, they feel most comfortable considering submissions from the mainstream, which only peripherally allude to theory that is unfamiliar to its particular domain. Giving in on domain authority, recognizing different perspectives, and accepting the inflation of respected quality estimators such as impact factors or Hirsch numbers is not commonly encountered. Researchers simply do not cite what is not absolutely credible in their field and editorial boards do not publish what is not home brewed.


What is more, the focus on the importance of in-group work brings about a certain level of inertia and causes tunnel vision. The replication of findings that only allow for slight theoretical adjustments are euphemistically called “additions to the theory”. This practice drives the monodiscipline into an industrialized mode of research production that leaves little room for creativity. To preserve the dominance of the mainstream, the monodiscipline becomes immune to paradigm shifts, which comfortably guarantees success at the regular scientific outlet venues and grant organizations.


Owing to the free exchange of information on a global scale, breakthrough discoveries nowadays tend to happen at the borders of seemingly unrelated disciplines. On the intersection of mathematics, physics, and biology, optical tweezers to measure protein bonds serve as a good example. Because researchers are focused on the importance of their own work however, it is only a matter of accumulating critical mass on the crossroads of disciplines to have the hotspot shift towards the former periphery. What was once an outpost now becomes the mainstream, and eventually turns into a monodiscipline in and of itself, running the risk again of scientific protectionism against outside influences. Hence, hotspot preservation is only possible if the monodiscipline is able to reinvent itself and adapt to change. Specialism only survives under stable conditions.