Quality criteria for inter- and trans-disciplinary doctoral research outcomes

Institute for Sustainable Futures
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Working Paper
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Disciplinary, multi‐disciplinary, inter‐disciplinary (ID) and trans‐disciplinary (TD) research are all essential if we are to make headway on the defining challenges of our time: adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, eliminating poverty, improving equity, and many others. The role of higher education is to provide high quality offerings and outcomes across these research forms. Quality frames for work within disciplines (i.e. disciplinary and multi‐disciplinary research) have evolved with the development of disciplines. These frames are widely known and used (implicitly) within disciplines. Quality frames for inter‐disciplinary research (IDR) and trans‐disciplinary research (TDR) are less well developed because their nature is to juxtapose different epistemologies, making the process of determining quality fraught, and because they are young ‐ explications of what differentiates this work are still being developed. Our experience in working in the ID and TD field has exposed us to strong differences in how people judge quality in different disciplines and their expectations of ID and TD work. For instance in seeking to publish ID and TD work, papers have received outright rejection from a particular journal, whilst being strongly complimented and accepted to another highly ranked journal. Equally, another example is a doctoral assessment process in which a panel member of one disciplinary background said “I just can’t see a PhD in this work”, while another replied “I can see three”. The gap in quality frames becomes particularly significant for postgraduate students, supervisors, and examiners. Students need to produce a thesis that will pass examination, and papers that will be published. Examiners of doctoral theses need guidance on how IDR and TDR differs from disciplinary research, and to be alerted to appropriate expectations from such work. Supervisors need to mediate the process to help deliver these outcomes. This document seeks to explore and describe appropriate interpretations of broad quality criteria for evaluating IDR and TDR. In line with the view of Kiley and Mullins (2004), we recognise that criteria and their use are just one part of the process of judgement of quality of research that occurs for an examiner of doctoral work, and that many other factors influence how research is interpreted and judged, not least the level of experience of the examiner. In contrast to our approach in this work, Laudel (2006) argues that the answer to evaluating new forms of ID and TD research lies not in different criteria but rather in the ‘relative empowerment of applicants and enforced ‘interdisciplinary learning’ of reviewers with careful monitoring of institutional rules of assessment’. We agree in principle, and in practice, would argue that in the context of the Australian thesis examination process, that is particularly difficult to achieve, since examiners are external, and at arm’s length ‐ typically they do not meet or converse with each other, the candidate, or the supervisor. The opportunity to create and monitor interdisciplinary learning is, for now, severely restricted. We maintain that our focus on criteria is a vital contribution toward providing much needed guidance for students, supervisors and examiners on appropriate standards for an ID or TD doctoral thesis, and forms a valuable input to on‐
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